Laboratory Notebook

Laboratory notebooks are basic to scientific research and to the study of science.   For research scientist and beginning science student alike, keeping careful notes is very important.  In all disciplines clarity and accuracy are part of good writing.   Good writing takes practice.  Careful notekeeping builds a reservoir of information which may be used in assignments, term papers and papers submitted for publication.

While students may keep looseleaf or spiral laboratory notebooks as they learn to do it well, many science writers recommend that bound notebooks are used.  Bound laboratory books are just that, bound in page number order.  Pages cannot become misplaced or out of order.   The lab book is a permanent record of the activities, processes and outcomes in chronological order.  It is especially important in some fields where patents may be sought.  Accuracy of contents are less likely to be doubted if the notebook is bound.

Laboratory notebooks fall into several kinds or types.  Notebook usually refers to a blank bound book with page numbers in which sequential notes of projects, experiments, observations, etc are kept.  Usually a single notebook is used by only one person.   Sometimes there is an individual notebook for each project and sometimes it is a chronological account of all projects.

Logbooks are chronological lists of events recorded in a particular lab.  These might be work time records equipment repairs, checking equipment in and out, etc. Logbooks may be printed forms kept in looseleaf notebooks.

A journal or diary is a record kept by an individual of his/her accounts of work. It can include reactions, personal opinions or insights and is different from a notebook.   Notebooks are strictly factual reports of what was done.  Journal entries might contain explanations as to why and make evaluative judgments on the events of the day.

While traditionally done on paper, many persons and laboratories are now keeping all three kinds of notebooks electronically.  There are software packages for such purposes.

Notebook entries have a time honored style and content no matter if kept on paper or computer.  Notes must be made right after completing the task and include the subject, date, sometimes time and name or signature.  Some lab notebooks include space to refer to the page numbers of related work.  First person, rather than the third person style of many scientific journals, must be employed in the body of the notes.   The persons doing the work must be indicated.  In working laboratories, the entries are also read and signed by a second person, as witness. There should be an up-to-date table of contents.

It is best to write legibly with a black ball point pen.  Take care to make all numerals, subscripts and superscripts very readable. Use complete day and dates rather than brief indications.  Use headings for separate activities. Write as you work so that nothing is left out or subject to memory.

If you develop and practice notetaking as you work in a lab, you will quickly get more proficient.  You can ask your instructor for on-the-spot directions and clarification.  Many instructors have particular preferences for laboratory notes in their disciplines.  Most include the basics ennumerated here but like citation styles may vary in order and amount of information.

More information can be found in:   Knare, HN. 1985. Writing the laboratory notebook.
Washington, DC
American Chemical Society.
The Busse Library call number is Q 180.58 .K36 1985.