7 Organizational Tips for Laboratory Notebooks

Now that schools across the country are back in session, students are stepping into labs for the very first time as undergraduate researchers, and are in a valuable position to learn organizational skills in order to ensure that research notes in laboratory notebooks are kept tidy and legible for future reference. Whether you’re a student, a professor, or a seasoned reacher, we’ve comprised some tips on organizing your lab notebooks in order to make the most of your data. An important note before we begin: as researchers move into the professional sphere, scientific laboratory notebooks can be considered legal documents, especially when pursuing patents and attempting to meet FDA guidelines for drug research. It takes 10-15 years to develop a medicine or vaccine, and because of these two factors, it’s important to cultivate good habits early on.

Write in Your Lab Notebook Every Day

If you’re in the middle of research you’re passionate about, taking time to write in your laboratory notebooks can seem like a dull chore. However, it’s important to record the data you have while it’s fresh in your mind. Setting aside even 10 minutes at the end of each day to record your findings will not only make it easier to develop the habit, it will also lay the groundwork for more cogent, replicable research later on.

In Case You Miss a Day: Keep a Backup Notepad

While it should always be a priority to record things in your lab book every day, there are times when this simply isn’t feasible. In order to make sure that your stray observations are recorded, keep a separate notebook on your desk for informal notes that can be transferred to your lab book later on. Make sure that each page is dated, and don’t get in the habit of relying too heavily on shorthand notes, or you run the risk of having to extrapolate your findings from informal notes at the end of the process.

Templates Can Help Streamline the Process

If you’re working in an environment with a set of established protocols, you can save yourself time by creating templates with the protocol already in place. Print it out and keep it with you. That way, you can note changes to protocol directly on the sheet, then insert the completed page in your lab book at the end of the day.

Make Sure Errors Are Still Visible

If you make an error that needs to be crossed out, be sure to only cross through it once so that it’s still visible. Your errors are just as valuable a teaching tool as your successes, and it’s important to keep as full a record as possible.

Number Your Pages

This is a surprisingly simple tip that can save you time and effort later on. Many laboratory notebooks are bound notebooks that are sturdy, but not indestructible. If the worst happens and the binding breaks, you want to be able to easily reorder your pages with as minimal time and effort as possible. Additionally, numbering your pages will allow you to easily refer to other sections of your notebook by page number.

Write More Than You Think You’ll Need

In your rush to complete your lab book entry for the day and get out the door, you may be tempted to only write the biggest or most interesting results of the day. However, it’s often the small details that make for significant findings later on. Always try to err on the side of over-detailed rather than under-detailed, which will ensure that you’re able to refer back to each day with as much clarity as possible.

Always Note the Unusual

Similarly to the previous point, you should always be sure to take note any time your sample looks different or if machinery or testing instruments are behaving in a way they might not normally. While it may seem overzealous, making notes of these unusual occurrences can save you the headache of trying to sleuth out the cause of any odd data points you may get as a result of this behavior, especially if some time has passed.

Maintaining and cultivating good organizational habits makes for stronger, more reputable researchers. Do you have lab book organization tips? Let us know in the comments below.