How to keep a good lab notebook
The scientist’s lab notebook is essentially a record of all scholarly activities conducted. However scientists often find it difficult to keep, or know how to keep, a good lab notebook. In 2015, PLoS published an editorial providing guidance on how to keep a good lab notebook. Here is a summary of a few key points:
Record all scientific activities in your lab notebook
Whether you choose to keep a paper or electronic notebook, the notebook serves as a chronological log of the conduct of the science. Make the habit of keeping the notebook close by (in your desk, or on your computer), and write an entry immediately after any scientific activity or work is performed (e.g. after every research meeting, experiment, analysis and result, and thoughts related to any research problem). The intellectual activity that forms the first conception of the idea or question, how it might be tested, all possible directions of research and thinking about how the system works, is often what leads to real breakthroughs. Recording this activity allows your future self and others to track the project’s progress.
Every entry should be recorded with a date, subject and protocol
The most logical organisation of a lab notebook is by time. You want enough information in each entry to jog your memory in future about what was discussed or done. Entry titles should be short and sharp, and can form a table of contents later on. For each entry, include a date and time stamp, and a short background or synopsis (e.g. thought process explaining why this entry is important). Don’t erase or destroy an entry, because mistakes are just as important as successes in the scientific process.
Keep a record of how every result was produced
Record the sequence of steps taken (and every detail that influences the execution) for an analysis or result to be reproduced. This includes how the experiment was prepared, how data were processed or cleaned, and analysis and post-processing. Store the raw data (and treat raw data as
read-only) so figures or analysis can be reproduced exactly.
Use version control for models, algorithms, and computer code
And, I might add, use version control for manuscripts too. Code to process or analyse data get updated all the time, and changes to programs or user-written scripts can substantially change your results. Systematically archiving changes to code or manuscripts (in text) makes it easier to track code used to generate certain results, or view previous manuscript revisions. There are many version control systems available (Git, Subversion, Mercurial). At Scientifically Sound, see the tutorials by Martin Héroux for an introduction to Git for beginners.
Keep a lab notebook that can serve as a legal record of your work
The lab notebook records ownership of ideas and results. From the legal point of view, a lab notebook reflects who did what and allows others to corroborate the results of your research. A lab notebook can also be made openly accessible, which will make your work transparent to the scientific community, and allows others to learn more about your research, what worked and what didn’t.
Schnell S (2015) Ten Simple Rules for a Computational Biologist’s Laboratory Notebook. PLoS Comput Biol 11(9): e1004385.