Duly Noted: The Makings of an Inspired Lab Book

The ORT Times - April Issue, 2016


The laboratory notebook—the 'lab book'—is ubiquitous in research. If you are in the business of running experiments or tinkering away until something amazing is invented, it is pretty much a given that you keep one. And, if you have navigated the tortuous academic gauntlet from a Bachelor's degree to a post-doctoral fellowship, you have probably authored a great many of them by now.

So, what does it mean to keep a good lab book? And why does it matter?

To start my investigation, I looked to the policies of prominent research institutions; after all, these institutions are the owners of all scientific records drawn up by their scientists. In their Guidelines for Scientific Record Keeping, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that research records are to be “complete, accurate and understandable to others” and “should be kept in sufficient detail to allow another scientist skilled in the art to repeat the work and obtain the same results.”

So, how can I do this? What must I write in this lab book? Take it away, NIH:

“Records should describe or explain:

       Who did it (the person making the record)

       What you did

       When you did it (clearly stating month, date, and year)

       Why you did it

       What project the research was part of

       How you did it (including the methodology)

       What materials were used

       The findings

       Your interpretation

       The next step”

Great! But, why should I do this? Yes, my supervisor wants to make sure that my successors can pick up my research where I left off, but there has got to be another reason for all of these rules. 

There is: lab books can be used as legal documents when things get dicey.

For example, lab books are critical to the process of establishing yourself as the inventor of a particular innovation. In the past, intellectual property claims were awarded under the ‘first-to-invent’ system. In this system, the onus was on the inventor to keep an airtight record of their pioneering work so that they could claim ownership at any point in time, even if another group had already filed an identical patent. Now, it is more of a race with the ‘first-to-file’ or ‘first-inventor-to-file’ system, instituted by Canada in 1989 and the United States in 2013. Under the current system, as long as you have the necessary documentation—such as a lab notebook that unambiguously records your findings—and you are the first to the patent office, the invention is yours. In either case, comprehensive recordkeeping is essential to the successful development of intellectual property.

Another important legal duty of a lab book is to establish a consistent record of proof as you run through experiments and collect data. Recording your methods and results in a way that leaves nothing in question will serve you very well if the occasion arises when someone regards your findings as, well, unbelievable. Academic journals and research institutions have the cooperative responsibility to review questionable data. One of the primary pieces of evidence these organizations use for this type of investigation is the lab book. 

Lab books are used in research institutions all over the world and, as such, policies governing their use vary widely. But sometimes, even a single institution employs what might be seen as contradictory instructions. For example, the NIH asserts, “A common misunderstanding about a lab notebook is that it is a journal for your scientific or personal musings. It is not.” in one directive, yet it also states, “a laboratory notebook is a record of both physical and mental activity.” in the guideline cited above. To me, 'mental activity' sounds a lot like ideas, maybe even ‘musings’.

In my opinion, the lab book is a place to keep a clear record of your work, but also a place to let your mind run through the possibilities of your research and anything connected to your science. A wonderful example of an inventor who kept meticulous notes through the entirety of his scientific and creative process was Thomas Edison. Author Michael Michalko noted that Edison's 3500 notebooks "read like a turbulent brainstorm and present a verbal and visual biography of Edison’s mind at work.” Though this seems like a terrible way to enable reproducibility, this style of scientific recordkeeping allowed the notebooks to “...illustrate how Edison conceived his ideas from their earliest inceptions and show in great detail how he developed and implemented them." A commendable record, I would say.

My advice: be rigorous and methodical with your notes—always aiming to instil transparency and to enable the reproducibility of your research. But, be sure to keep a good record of your thoughts and inspirations as well, whether they directly relate to your current experimental work or not. These passing thoughts may be the makings of your next major breakthrough. If your research institution or supervisor takes a strong stance against these sorts of ‘turbulent brainstorms’ in your lab books, then keep a companion journal and let loose there.

In the words of Alexander von Humboldt, an 18th century naturalist and explorer who happened to keep beautiful, animated scientific records, “In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation.”

All of your thoughts count. I suggest you record them.