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Keeping a Good Lab Notebook Print E-mail
Written by William Finney   
Wednesday, 05 September 2007

A small page of notes




Just as important as selecting the proper notebook for recording your scientific experiments is how to take good notes.  Even an experienced scientist can benefit from reviewing good notebook keeping techniques from time to time.  In this How-To we talk about what should go into your notebook, what shouldn’t and how to make a good entry in your notebook.




What your notebook is for


Your lab notebook serves three important purposes:


  • A record of important procedures for experiments you have developed during your experimentation.


  • A record of the results of experiments that you have performed.


  • The means to reproduce the results of your experiments by following the procedures you have developed at another time or place.


A good notebook is not simply a list of results of experiments but allows you to develop methods that you can use for further experimentation and would allow someone else to reproduce your results and understand why you did what you did in your experiments.


What goes into your notebook


  • Page numbers – if your notebook doesn’t already have them add them to the upper outside corner of each page.  These are important so you can refer back to frequently used tables, procedures, or results.  You can also be sure that there are no missing pages (leading to missing steps) if following a past procedure.


  • A table of contents – The first few pages should be reserved for this, it allows you to quickly find the information you are looking for and makes the book a useful reference.  Later on you will be able to find a particular experiment without having to read every page.



  • Dates – Every entry, or at the very least every day that you record data should be dated, this allows you to more easily.


  • Unusual conditions during an experiment – Sometimes things go differently than we plan and we have something unusual happen during our experiments some of the things you might want to look for and record are:
Strong storms (ie. behavior of an observed animal may be atypical)
Extremes in temperature or humidity (many instruments and materials are sensitive to temperature and humidity)
Power failures (if your experiment requires power)
Something is went wrong or was unexpected (ie. you notice that the apparatus is no longer working at some point during your experiment)
Experimenter fatigue may impair your ability to make good observations


  • Reasons for decisions made during an experiment – What we did isn’t always good enough, why we did what we did is just as important to record.  Make sure that you record the whys and not just the whats.


  • Contact information for people that provided you with information or supplies – They may be able to provide you with some materials in the future or to give you more information later on should you need it.  It is important to give credit where it is due as well.    


  • Any information that you might need to reproduce the results of an experiment – Your notebook alone should be sufficient for someone to reproduce your experiment.  Aim to be as complete as possible, we talk about what an entry for an experiment should look like below.

What stays out of your notebook


  • Notes for anything that is not directly related to your experiments – These might be confusing to someone trying to reproduce the experiments, may make it harder for you to follow what you were doing later on and are simply not good for organization.


  • Rude or offensive comments – Remember, someone else may be reading your notebook some day.  Do not describe people using derogatory stereotypes or use insulting, inflammatory or vulgar language in your notes.


  • Unsubstantiated or subjective statements or opinions – Statements like “This was fun!”  or “Dogs are ugly” and even “The weather was pleasant” are opinions, not facts or objective measures.  Not everything that we might want to record is easily categorized as objective or subjective.  Make sure that you support any statement with arguments to back it up.



Further Reading


This is such an important topic that there are many good websites that can give you more pointers.  Rather than try to reproduce everything that they do here, visit these other sites to learn more.

This site at the University of Pittsburg talks about what a good notebook entry should include in describing an experiment.

This article by King Lee from the Drug Information Journal describes why it is important to keep a good lab notebook with a particular slant towards what is needed in a regulated environment (pharmaceuticals research).  [Note:  On visiting this page recently this site did try to redirect my browser at one point, make sure your pop-up blocker and anti-virus software is up to date.]

This page at Pennsylvania State University is a brief synopsis of what should be done in a good notebook, this also discusses electronic notebooks.

This pdf file from the Mechanical Engineering department at MIT describes how to keep a good notebook with example pages.

Another page from Wellesley College on how to keep a good lab notebook with example pages with an emphasis on organizing your thoughts before you begin an experiment.

Another great discussion on how to keep a good notebook.

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