Maintaining laboratory notebooks

One of the first things that I had to do when I started my research in the lab was to create a lab notebook. What started off as a well-groomed, precise and perfectly organised record of my research procedures is now turning into a sloppy mess. Making daily entries of my work has become tiresome and I am slowly losing track of the orderliness while trying to keep up. But guess what? The *perfect* lab notebook simply does not exist.

Page from one of my first lab notebooks.
Page from one of my first lab notebooks.

Lab notebooks are supposed to be a documentation of our research. And no research is perfect. Numerous changes to protocols, adjustments in data and new developments in our exploration as we maneuver through the endless facts and figures are all an integral part of scientific research. A lab notebook which demonstrates all this translucently is ‘almost’ perfect. The essentials like dates, page numbers, goals, protocols, observations, calculations and the results are absolutely fundamental. However, so are the tiny side notes to show changes, end pointers to highlight significant steps, indicators to expose errors & oversights, etc. Further more, pictures of gels, protein expression, spectrophotometer results, blots, gene maps, overview diagrams, illustrations, and experimental designs add unique individual characteristics to each lab notebook.

The intention should be to establish a good record keeping practice, without missing out on any vital details that can be easily understood by all. One of the critical components that I found missing in many books was the answer to the question “why” at the beginning of every protocol/day. I consider this element to be important because many times, we find ourselves lose track of the purpose of a particular procedure or fail to see the larger picture while blatantly repeating steps for the zillionth time.

Another format that one can consider these days are ELNs or electronic lab notebooks. These could be great in terms of simplicity, effortlessness and all the features that accompany it. Images in-between protocols, adding graphs & tables, attaching external files, hyperlinks, organising experiments in different files, creating tabs for managing inventories, etc can all be incorporated into one project file. It is like maintaing an entire lab digitally on a personal computer! Hard copies of the documents can be printed out regularly to serve as an alternate backup. The efficiency of ELNs seems to be drawing a lot of attention from some of the new age scientists.

While this seems to be a new avenue to explore, I am going to give myself enough time and experience to outgrow the good old hardbound notebooks that are going to serve as my memory aid in the future.

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