What are the standards for keeping lab notebooks?

Laboratory Notebooks

It is very important to keep a good laboratory notebook.

A good notebook is important for:

  1. Allowing the efficient retrieval of data now and in the future
  2. Ensures results can be reproduced at any time in the future and that there are traceable records. 
  3. Capturing, for patent purposes, when important discoveries are conceived, and when they are proven (reduced to practice). In the U.S., a patent is granted to the inventor who was the first to conceive the inventions. The notebook can play a critical role in proving you were the first to discover this invention.
  4. Keep in mind that the lab notebook does not belong to you or even the lab-- it is the property of UCSF.  It should not be taken off campus without permission.  At any time, UCSF legal may confiscate the notebooks to evaluate the validity of the practice or specific patent claims.  Take your notebook seriously!

Briefly, for notebook entries you should:

  • Write in a permanent medium, such as ink
  • Use consecutive pages
  • Date entries
  • Identify the subject matter
  • Include sketches, diagrams, etc. and explain them
  • Photos, drawings, etc., should be identified and permanently attached
  • Avoid erasures
  • Do not change entries; make a new entry
  • Periodically have someone who understands the subject matter, not a co-worker or joint inventor, review the entries and witness same using a signature and date

Here are some key points:

Notebook Entries:

Electronic notebooks currently don’t replace a paper notebook. Even if you choose to keep an electronic notebook, it is still important to print out your e-version and glue into a standard lab notebook.  

Each project has a separate notebook. This is particularly important for industry sponsored projects. The industry partner has the right to review notebooks notating the work they sponsor. You may not want to be sharing data and potential new inventions stemming from other projects on which you are working.

If more than one researcher is working on the same project, they should be making chronological entries in the project notebook, with their initials next to their own entries.

Details on Notebook Format:

 A simple chronological record for each experiment should be kept, using ink entries. Do not erase; if needed, cross out, initial the change, and make a new entry. Entries must be understandable by other researchers without your explanation or interpretation.

a) Leave the first 4-5 pages of every Lab Notebook blank for creation of an index (table of contents).  Note that this is usually done for you in the notebooks our lab purchases.  Each new entry in the notebook should also be annotated in the Table of Contents at the same time.

 b) Every experiment should be given a separate, sequential identification number identified by the investigator's initials followed by a number. 

c) For each experiment, give it a SHORT TITLE at the top of the page to identity the nature of the experiment.

 d) Enter the DATE the experiment was started and sign the page.  Next give a brief description of the PURPOSE of the experiment (even if it seems implicit from the short title).  One or two sentences should be sufficient.

e) Give the MATERIALS used, and outline the METHOD to be used.  If it is a standard technique it is only necessary to state the method and condition variables. If the method is new or there is substantial modification to a standard method, these must be described in detail to ensure that another investigator could repeat the experiment.    

f) When possible enter the experimental results in the notebook.  However, this is impractical for many types of results  (e.g. autoradiographs, large numbers of FACS plots, deep sequence data, etc.).  In these cases, place all original data in a three-ring binder labeled with the matching experiment number.  Whenever possible, keep electronic data stored on a CD and associate with the notebook.   

g) For each experiment, the RESULTS and CONCLUSION should be stated in the lab notebook.  This does not have to be extensive, but should simply summarize whether the experiment was successful and the major finding. 

h) Often you will be working on several experiments in a single day.  Always start at the top of a new notebook page for every experiment. 

i) Cross out any unused portion of the page.

Refer to the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery page on Guidelines on Research Data and Reports for additional detailed information on how to keep a proper lab notebook.