Buxton Lab Procedures

How to Keep a Scientific Notebook

Pharmacology Notebook

The Notebook

For our purposes you must select a bound notebook.

Preparing the notebook

Use a ball point pen/fine point sharpie for all entries so that you're writing doesn't smear nor is it erasable.

Put your name and project name outside front cover of the notebook. If you're working on a second project you can maintain a separate notebook to keep things organized. Put that same information on the first page inside. Reserve the next four pages for a table of contents by labeling the top of each page as Table of Contents.

What to enter

Above all, it is critical that you enter all procedures and data directly into your notebook in a timely manner, that is, while you are conducting the actual work! Your entries must be sufficiently detailed so that you or someone else could conduct any procedure with only the notebook as a guide. THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM. The most logical organization of notebook entries is chronological. If a proper chronological record is kept and co-signed by a supervisor, it is a legally valid record. This record is necessary we are to keep rights to discoveries.

You are encouraged to use your notebook for lab discussion notes, ideas, questions, library research notes, and notes that are part of any pre-lab preparation. The bare minimum entries should include title of the study; introduction and objectives for that day or week; detailed procedures and data (recorded in the lab itself); and a summary of what happened good or bad and what you think about it!

We usually record a lot more information in a laboratory notebook than we would report in a research paper. For example, in a published article we often don't report centrifuge maker or rotor type; we do report RCF. However, if a procedure is unsuccessful you should check to see that you used the correct rpm and correct rotor in a given machine each time. You need to know which machine was used when repeating a procedure to get the most reproducible results. However in the notebook it is important to note who was responsible for what procedure. Again, you may need such information to troubleshoot your experiments.

Making entries

Someone else may need to consult your notebook sometime, so please make your entries clear and legible.

When you make your first entries of the day, start by entering the date, writing out the month or abbreviation for the month (e.g., 5 Apr '04, or April 5, 2004 is best). The use of numerals only can cause confusion. For example, in Europe the day comes before the month. Thus April 5, 2004 would be written as 5/4/04. When you start each new page of a notebook enter the date next to the page number (Upper right). Each page should be numbered and dated consistently. Note that our notebooks have double sided pages. Don't leave blank pages.

Write a title for each and every new set of entries. Distinct sets of entries should be separated by using informative headings and by leaving a single space or two between individual sets of entries. Specific information can be more readily located that way. At the beginning of your study, and in each new notebook, write down a very brief introduction to the study, and list the objectives. You should have a specific hypothesis, write it down. The object is to make it completely clear what you intend to do.

Record everything you do in the lab, even if you are following a published procedure. For example, if you started by obtaining a quantity of tissue, then write down that you obtained tissue, describe it, note how much, what condition, etc. Any and all relevant information should be there. For example, it doesn't matter much if you received a chunk of uterus in a red ice bucket or a black one. However, it does matter that the material was on ice. If you change a protocol in any way or decide between alternative methods, then the correct information must be recorded in the notebook. For example, a protocol for tissue fractionation may recommend centrifugation at 9400 x g, but we may decide to use 12,000 x g in the lab. The correct g force must be noted.

If you make a mistake, put a line through the mistake and write the new information next to it. Never erase or obliterate (whiteout) an entry. When you finish a page, put a corner-to corner line through any blank parts that could still be used for data entry. Every bit of every page must be legible and filled, either with information or with a mark that voids the section.

The summary

When you have finished an experiment or set of experiments, summarize what you have accomplished. You don't have to draw conclusions (all though that is a great idea and if there is a clear conclusion, make it). In the least, indicate what sort of data or observations you collected, samples you saved (and where and how you saved them), or any other relevant information that wraps up the effort. Keep the summary brief. When it is clear to you, make notes as to what you want to do next so that you can maintain and engage in discussions and report the history of your thinking during lab discussions. Summaries help maintain continuity. They indicate where the work left off and how it might resume.


Doing two things at once?

What if you are conducting two long procedures at once, each with long waiting periods? For example, suppose you are conducting a protein assay and preparing a gel for your samples out in the laboratory. Back in the cell culture room, you are harvesting and processing tissues for primary culture. Both procedures involve waiting periods, yet you will complete both tasks by the end of the day.

Simply use your best judgment. You could divide each page into columns and keep your two records side-by-side. You might date two consecutive pages, keeping both records separately. In either case, when you leave the laboratory for the day (midnight is a good time to go home so you can be back by 0900) cross out any unused parts of a page that precede the last entry.

Continuation pages

With continuing research you will always be using more than one page for a day's effort. Proper use of continuation notes makes it possible to follow your path through a long experiment or series of experiments without having to leaf through every page of your notebook.

For example, let's say you intend to label some protein samples with antibody after running a gel. During the time your immunoblot is being processed, you devote all of your time to a cloning project that is part of an unrelated study. After you put your gel in the fridge, simply write Continued, page _X_, then enter the date and title of your other experiment, and continue to record information. When you resume work on the protein samples, enter the date, write Continued from page _X_, and enter your image results. This way, everything you do in the laboratory is recorded chronologically, yet someone interested in following your progress could start from the beginning and follow every procedure on just that one study, from start to finish.

When you have a computer generated image, you can cut the paper and past in the data but you must include the original image and the intensity settings, etc. on the page as well. Write your initials over the edges of the added paper on all sides so that it is clear that this was done and never remove and replace. If you end up with a better result from changing the settings later, put that result in as well and refer to the original and detail why, when and how!

Are things getting too sloppy?

Perhaps your data records are scattered throughout the notebook, and you would like to summarize them. Go ahead. You may re-enter tables or figures any time you wish to organize your work a bit better. To prevent confusion over duplication of data you may put a line through a table or figure you intend to re-draw, initial and date the change, and note the page on which the re-organized data can be found. Just don't obscure any of the original entry.

Repeated procedures

Once YOU carry out a procedure, you can refer to that part of your notebook, and only note changes you make. For example, the first time you prepare a primary cell culture you should write down the exact formulation, how you mix the gel, how long you let it cure, etc. The next time, just refer to the name of the procedure and the appropriate page(s) of YOUR notebook. This does not apply to any other notebook but your own!

Loose materials

Suppose you enter raw data into a computer and have a printout with 400 pieces of data. Or, suppose you generate a graph using a software program. You might even have a silver-stained gel that you wish to refer to frequently, or a fluorescence photomicrograph that sums up your results nicely. You are encouraged to attach such materials to the notebook itself. If too many such items make a sloppy notebook and stress the binding, loose data can be kept in a separate folder or notebook, but its existence and location MUST be noted in the your notebook.

Table of contents

Record all entries in the table of contents as you go along. You can organize it anyway you like but it is advisable to include multiple levels in a table of contents, that is, indicate where a new study starts and include subheadings for specific parts of a study, methods, sets of data, etc. The idea is to enable someone (such as your PI, or you when you're writing your dissertation) to find anything quickly. List each set of entries with dates and page numbers.

Notebook checklist

As you record your activities in the laboratory, ask yourself, "Did I…"

  • Keep up with the table of contents?
  • Date each page?
  • Never rip out a page; maintain each numbered page consecutively?
  • Use continuation notes when necessary?
  • Properly void all blank pages or portions of pages (front and back)? Never tear out a page or remove any portion of a page.
  • Enter all information directly into the notebook?
  • Properly introduce and summarize each experiment?
  • Include complete details of all first-time procedures?
  • Include your rough calculations?