The Importance of Having a Lab Book

Hello there! I hope the Holidays are treating you well and that hopefully you didn't have to go to the lab...too much. Today's topic is Lab Books!!! Fun hu? 

A lab book doesn't have to be pretty, it should just be organized and when I say organized is not in a "oh I know where it is" manner but in a "if ever someone other than me sees my lab book, they will find what they need" manner.

When I was on my bachelor, it was up to each person to bring in their own notebook to use; now during my graduate studies we are given the same type of notebooks. I am telling you this just to point out that the format of the notebook is not the relevant thing here. You can have lined, squared or even white paper; legal or letter size. This is not the main point of the notebook. I would prefer to have a squared paper one, but since the institute supplies a lined one that's what I use.

Once you have a notebook, the first thing I would suggest it to label it. I label the spine, with my name and number of book (I am up to 5 by now) and then in the inner side of the cover you can find all my info: Name, name of the lab, address of the institute, my phone and email. Now some of this info might seem unnecessary since the lab book should NOT go out of the lab. But it doesn't hurt to have it  and if ever, ever, you take your lab book home to prepare a lab meeting, all the info is there.

As I said, it doesn't have to be pretty inside. I use at least two colors of pen, one for titles or dates and one for the body of the writing, but this is just so visually I can find things faster. If you feel like just using one color that is fine, one color and a highlighter? perfect; multiple colors to mark multiple things? whatever rocks your boat. Something that is  not optional though is writing in PEN. Your notes should not be erased, either by you or others, all the data should remain in the notebook. This also means that you shouldn't use white out. 

Also, did you noticed I mentioned dates and titles? Always put the date! this applies not only to your notebook, but to your Western blot films, your samples, etc. It might seem counter intuitive but it is fundamental in an organized lab book. As for the titles, I am referring to your experiment title: Immunofluorescence, Protein quantification, etc. If it is an experiment that carries on for several days, write down that it is a continuation or part 2 or anything that denotes where did the experiment started and where it finished. A way to mark the end of an experiment, is obviously writing down the result even if it is a bad one, you can always discuss what went wrong.

Write down your protocols in full, at least the first time you use them. Afterwards, what I do is refer to the exact place where you find the protocol (Notebook # Page #) and then write the specifics of this experiment such us amount loaded in a gel, concentration of reagents and off course ANY modification you did to your original protocol. If you are using a protocol from an article cite the main source: you can either write the citation or what I prefer to do is to paste the methods part AND write the citation.

When starting a new approach or experiment, write down the reasons behind doing this, the objective if you want. Some people write the objective before every experiment, but I think is enough to write it the first time doing it and then you can refer to this when you repeat to validate your results.

Now, some notebooks already have numbered pages and this is recommended in several labs just to ensure that you are not missing information or removing pages.

Another thing to note is to have an index. I keep mine at the end of the notebook, and actually have one for protocols and one for results. I also mark the first time a result was recorded with Flags (Post-its) but this is optional.The indexes will make your life easier as well as the one of the person coming after you.

Keep your notebook up to date as much as possible. I mentioned before, I know sometimes during the day you don't have time to write down what you did. That is way I keep a monthly planner on my desk where I write down what I did in general and I keep the notes I took on the exact day, until they are transferred to the notebook.

There are other things you can, but those I believe are more optional. If you have dried gels, or pictures I like to protect them with an extra piece of paper over them. But that is mostly because I write very hard and don't want to ruin them. I also like to print the slides that I have for lab meetings and paste them in the notebook; it helps to keep a record of where you are and to keep the comments you had on that presentation. And I write EVERYTHING. when I went on vacation (that way people don't find a bunch of dates missing with no explanation), when we went to a congress (again with comments and input), when an article, grant was submitted/accepted...etc.

That is my advice on lab books. Did I forget something? Let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, keep working on good science ;)

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