Guidelines on Keeping a Good Laboratory Notebook

A laboratory notebook is a chemist's most valuable tool. It contains the permanent written record of a researcher's mental and physical activities from experiment and observation, to the understanding of new phenomena. A laboratory notebook is a researcher's diary. The act of writing the notebook forces one to stop and think about what is being done in the laboratory. After the experimental data is recorded, the researcher begins to study, analyze, evaluate, and interpret the notebook. New ideas and questions are written down and the laboratory notebook evolves into an expression of the Scientific Method.

There are important legal reasons for keeping a good notebook. A laboratory notebook is admissible in a court of law for patent claims. In recent cases of suspected fraud, the FBI confiscated laboratory notebooks as physical evidence. In industry as well as at the University, a researcher's laboratory notebook is property of the company/University. In companies, it is witnessed and signed each working day. The proprietary information the notebook contains should not leave the building.

In this course, your laboratory notebook will contribute to your grade. I will review your notebook periodically throughout the semester, and it has to be submitted to the TA’s along with your final report. You should be prepared to have your notebook collected at any time. The main criteria for evaluation will be, "Does the notebook clearly tell what was done?" And, if the notebook was sent to a laboratory in Hammerfest, "Could they understand what was done and repeat the experiment?"

 Your notebook should be bound and numbered continuously throughout. The first few pages should be left blank for the table of contents. All entries should be recorded with a black or blue ball-point ink pen. The key to writing a good notebook is simple clarity: Clear layout, clear descriptions, and good penmanship. A notebook which is filled with scribbles and scrawls will waste your time when you look for something and may actually be misleading. The following is a general guide with comments on how your notebook should be organized for each experiment. It was modified from, "Writing the Laboratory Notebook" by H. M. Kanare.


1. Introduction.

Begin reporting an experiment by recording the date and title of the experiment on the very top of a new page. Below this a statement of the purpose of the experiment should be listed. You should reference the source of the experiment.

2. The Experimental Plan.

A few simple sentences to state the work that is to be done. A flowchart, outline, or list of steps may be appropriate. This section is mainly for readers so that they understand what you are doing. It is good practice to include notes on safety in this section.

3. The Observations and Data Section.

This is the heart of the experiment where you actually record observations that you make during the course of the experiment. These notes and data will allow you to test hypothesis and apply the Scientific Method.

Record the data as completely as possible and leave interpretations for later. Don't be embarrassed about writing down mistakes or accidents--- if you drop your product on the floor, record in your notebook "Product was accidentally dropped on the floor; used paper towels to recover some of it."

Write down everything!! Your results hinge on exactly what you do, not how nicely you sugar-coat them in the notebook. A few general notes which you should specifically pay attention to in this course:

     •         Record all information necessary to unambiguously identify chemical reagents and other research materials, including the manufacturer and the age or expiration date. If you repeat the experiment, use "Protocol according to p. xxx, but with the following modifications..." and then list whatever was different from the protocol you are refering to.

     •        Note whether water was distilled (singly or triply) or deionized, and the pH.

     •         When using an instrument, write down completely the model and manufacturer. Are you sure the instrument is running properly? When was the last time it was checked or calibrated?

     •        Use proper names for labware and vessels. Was the sample weighed in a dish crucible, beaker or flask? What kind of flask ?

     •        In what sequence were reagents mixed? Was "A" added to "B" or vice versa? How precisely were the reagents measured? Was the balance significant to 0.01 gram or 0.00001 gram? Use significant figures!

            How long did it take to go from "A" to "B"? Did the color change occur immediately or after hours, minutes?

     •        Was the laboratory ambient unusually dry or humid? Hot or cold? Why?

     •        Include drawings of experimental apparatus or devices. A good drawing can save you several pages of writing and be very clear to other readers. Be sure to indicate a relative scale. Keep drawings simple and to the point. Draw the TLC, clearly indicating SM (starting material), R (reaction mixture), and C (co-spots). List chromatography conditions.

     •        Make corrections by drawing a single line through the incorrect data. Be sure to leave the unwanted entry legible, it may turn out to be correct.

     •        When graphing data make sure all axis are labeled with units and tick marks. Give the graph a simple title. Include error bars and note on or near the graph where the raw data that were used to plot the points can be found.

A final point is the inclusion of the actual raw & spectral analysis data. Many advisors encourage researchers to catalogue and store their data in separate files or binders. A researcher would then have a separate file for each compound that he or she made containing IR data, NMR data, spectroscopic data, etc... This data is then catalogued and cross referenced to the laboratory notebook.  Alternatively, you can paste the spectroscopic data into the lab notebook at the appropriate position.

4. Discussion of Results.

 Begin this section with a heading such as "Discussion" or "Data Evaluation" or some other phrase that clearly separates this section from the data and observations. This section gives you the opportunity to 'think in the notebook.' This section can contain calculations, charts, graphs, rearranged data or interpreted data. New ideas should be recorded here. How could we improve this experiment? An idea may occur only once, and only briefly: catch it while you can and record it onto the page.

5. Conclusion.

In the last section of your notes you should summarize the goal of your work, what was done and what was learned. Typically this can be done in a few concise sentences.