As you begin your undergraduate research project, you should document everything that you do in writing in a lab notebook. As a general rule, you can use any permanently bound book containing sequentially numbered pages for this purpose. Ideally, a notebook that is labeled "laboratory notebook" is preferable as it likely has been designed for this purpose. If you decide to use another kind of book for this purpose, make sure that the paper is acid-free and that the notebook looks well constructed (cover, binding, etc.). Since this notebook normally remains the property of the laboratory and/or institution at which you are working, it is best to ask your advisor for a laboratory notebook and to use whatever notebook you are given for this purpose.
The Purpose of a Laboratory Notebook
A real time record of what was done at what specific point in time on a project for the individuals and/or organizations that may have funded the research, for your advisor and you to facilitate your efforts in publishing and/or patenting your work. A good record gives confidence in the reproducibility of your work, aids others in building on your research.
What to Record in a Laboratory Notebook
What should you record in a laboratory notebook? Everything that is directly relevant to your work. Your laboratory notebook should provide literature citations for any relevant research and/or protocols that you follow in your work. Your notebook should provide a detailed record of exactly what you do in the laboratory in order to obtain your experimental results. The record should be as detailed as possible. If you did not know how to do something then assume that the reader of your notebook will also not know how to do it. You should include information on all the reagents, equipment and instrumentation that you use. For instrumentation and equipment: What model? What make? Where are they located? For reagents: What supplier/manufacturer? What level purity? What lot number? Where is the supplier/manufacturer located? Your notebook should also contain all of your experimental results where practical and if impractical you should include a drawing or photograph that shows the critical elements/characteristics. If you use some computer program to process and/or analyze your data, you should explain exactly how the data were processed. If your data are in electronic format, you should provide the names of all the data files and identify where the data are stored in the laboratory. Bottom-line: When in doubt, write it out!
Format for a Laboratory Notebook
Be sure to consult your research advisor to determine what policies he/she may require in terms of notebook format. In general, there is no set format one must follow. As a general rule, it is a good idea to set aside several pages at the start of the notebook for use as a table of contents. This will help you and others find things in the notebook quickly later. A brief (10 word) description of the experiment, date - including year, and the page numbers on which the experiment is described constitute a useful table of contents entry.
Each entry should begin on a new page of the notebook. A descriptive title should appear at the top of the page together with the data on which the work is being done (be sure to include the year). Note that exactly the same information should appear in your table of contents at the front of your notebook. Get in the habit of identifying each day's work in your table of contents the day you are doing the actual work. It only takes a second and will make your notebook that much more valuable both to you and future students in being able to locate past experiments and results.
Each page of your notebook should ideally contain one day's work. If you need more than one page to record a day's worth of work then do so. However, if you have empty space at the bottom of a page do not begin a new day's work there. Rather get in the habit of drawing a single diagonal line through the empty space and then begin the next day's work on a fresh page.
If you believe that your work will result in a patent, then it is useful to make sure that someone else (your advisor or a colleague in the laboratory) "witnesses" your work. This means that they read through each day's work and then initial and date that page. Your witness need not be an expert in your field of research. Their role is simply to acknowledge that the work you have described was written into the official record on those pages of your laboratory notebook on the date indicated.
Ultimately, if you want your work to become part of the archival primary literature as a peer-reviewed publication, you will need to be able to describe exactly the materials (source and quality), instrumentation (make and model), procedures, experimental conditions, instrumental parameters, and data processing parameters were used to acquire your experimental results. This information is usually summarized in the "Experimental" or "Research Methods" section of a technical paper. If you are planning on writing a thesis, you will need the information for the "Experimental" chapter. For this reason you should get in the habit of writing everything in your laboratory notebook. Ideally, you should record this information as you go along where it is relevant to each day's work. However, if you use the same reagents or instruments over and over again you might dedicate a page near the back of your notebook specifically for this purpose.
- H.M. Kanare. (1985) "Writing the Laboratory Notebook." Washington D.C.: American Chemical Society.
- R. Lewis. (1998) The Scientist. February 2, p. 14. "Laboratory Notebooks Chronicle a Scientist's Progress." Avail. URL: http://www.the-scientist.com/
- A.J. Rayl (1991) The Scientist. November 11, p. 18. "Misconduct Case Stresses Importance of Good Notebook Keeping." Avail. URL: http://www.the-scientist.com/