Notebook Keeping: Quick Tips to Get Started

12
Sep

Notebook Keeping: Quick Tips to Get Started

—from the Researcher's bench

Ideally, on your first day as an undergrad in the lab, your mentor will give a thorough tutorial on proper notebook keeping.

Unfortunately, from the inquires I regularly receive from undergrads, (and grad students and postdocs who mentor undergrads), notebook keeping is often an afterthought until a few weeks have passed.

Sometimes, a new researcher is even given the task of figuring out the process through trial-and-error or by asking labmates for guidance who may or may not have a great system themselves. If your lab is like mine and uses an all electronic notebook (ELN), some of these tips won't be relevant.

And if the suggestions I give next turn out to be incompatible with the notebook culture in your lab, definitely follow your mentor's preferences once you know what they are.

Basics for a paper lab notebook

  1. When you start a new notebook, leave the first ~ 10 pages blank to create a Table of Contents (TOC). As you get more involved in your project, you’ll add to the TOC and use it as a reference. Plus, when your research mentor needs to find something and you’re not in the lab, they will be grateful that you took the time to create it.
  2. Use Post-it flags to mark frequently used sections, and give each flag a short, descriptive label. Some labels might be similar to the TOC, but others will be sections that you refer to on a regular basis.
  3. Only write with a pen. If gel ink pens smear, purchase something else. Sharpies are a bad choice as they bleed through and eventually make a halo around the letters, and pencils aren’t permanent.
  4. Do your best to take notes as you do an experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard the proverb, “The weakest ink is better than the strongest memory.” If you can’t take notes as you go, then set aside time at the end of each research day to get it done before leaving. Yes, this might mean less time at the bench, but in the end your efforts will worthless to the lab if your notes aren’t accurate. And as I’m fond of saying, although it’s not as eloquent as the proverb above, “Memory is crap. Write it down.”
  5. Record the date at the start of every lab day. If you start an experiment on 9-1, but continue the experiment on 9-2, both dates should appear in your notebook. It only takes a few sections, and dates should also be included on the reagents you make and the samples you store each research period.
  6. Add page numbers if they aren’t preprinted in the notebook. As your research story grows, you might be surprised how often you’ll refer to a previous experiment or result because it connects with your current work. You’ll find what you need much faster with page numbers. Pus, in addition to the date, best research practices include adding page numbers to the outsides of storage boxes, tubes, and samples that you store.
  7. Resist the urge to use paper towels, Post-it notes, and random pieces of paper for your research notes.There will be times when you’ll just want to take a quick note but for whatever reason won’t feel like getting your notebook. But if something belongs in your notebook, write it in your notebook. Rewriting notes wastes time and leads to more mistakes. Some research mentors are okay if you want to use paper scraps for doing math but I recommend that you make a section in your notebook to show your work if you aren’t using a calculator. If an experiment fails, you might be able to track it down to a mathematical error if you recorded the calculation in your notebook.

Recording information

  1. Get ready to write. I tell my new undergrads that during the first half of the semester, ~ 50% of their time will be spent taking notes. This includes notes on their research project, and important details such as where the ice machine is, how to properly operate equipment, and tips directly related to their project. Think of your notebook from the first half of the term as your textbook for the second.
  2. Bullet points are your friend. You need to record the strategy of what you’re going to do, what you did, the outcome, the results, and your analysis of an experiment or procedure. Sometimes, new researchers get hung up on trying to make their notes sound interesting or worry that their research mentor won’t think that they are smart if they don’t write long paragraphs.Your mentor wants clear details. Incubation times. Amount of enzyme added. Observations made during the experiment and anything notable—such as mistakes made or what changes you made to the protocol. Rest assured, your mentor isn't looking for prose. Bullet points will do just fine.
  3. Record all mistakes, failures, hiccups, and anything that simply doesn’t seem right. Your research notes are part of your experiment’s permanent record. Some students are tempted to erase mistakes or rewrite sections because they are embarrassed, or fear that their mentor will be disappointed in them. But a good mentor will understand when mistakes happen. They will also offer tips so you can avoid making the same mistake again, which frees you up to make all new mistakes. (Because there are a lot of mistakes in the beginning of a research project!) Plus, as a mentor I assure you, it’s so much easier to troubleshoot someone’s experiment when the notes are an accurate reflection of what happened during the procedure. And, it’s unethical to withhold or put inaccurate details in your notebook on purpose— and if you do these it will eventually be discovered and hurt your credibly. Finally, a mistake or an unexpected result can be the key to a great discovery. Write it all down!

Organization

  1. Store protocols in a separate notebook. Although you could reserve a section in your research notebook for protocols, I suggest using a three-ring binder unless your lab’s protocols are digital or your mentor wants each protocol written in your primary research notebook. Put every protocol in a page protector so they are easy to store in the binder, and easy to hang up while you’re working at the bench. You don’t want to flip back and forth between writing your experimental notes and viewing a protocol. (A sure-fire way to have a frustrating day at the bench.) Keeping your protocols in a separate notebook also will give you the flexibility to write helpful notes and tips from labmates while you’re learning how to do a procedure. It’s difficult to estimate how much room to leave in a research notebook for these notes.
  2. If you use the three-ring binder system for your primary notebook, purchase inserts that hold miscellaneous items such as paper protocols, journal articles, and those random post-it-notes or napkins that you shouldn’t use to take notes, but probably will now and again.

Miscellaneous but important

  • Many students are surprised to learn that they don’t own “their” notebook. It is actually property of your college, university and/or PI (that’s an abbreviation for principal investigator for new researchers reading this).
  • A few weeks into the semester, ask your research mentor to glance through your notebook. Ask them specifically, “Are my notes detailed enough?” and “Should I be doing anything differently?” and “Do you have any tips?” If your research supervisor is also the PI, this is a way to make an additional professional connection. Showing the PI early on that you care about your project is important for myriad reasons including scholarship opportunities, recommendation letters, research travel awards, and (hopefully) an independent research project.
  • Most PIs don’t want notebooks to leave the lab. This is so they can look through it if you’re not in the lab to answer questions, and to prevent something tragic happening to it. Such as total destruction. Although accidents can happen in the lab, the chances of tragedy increases greatly by taking a notebook out of the lab.

Which brings me to the last point:

  • For the love of all that is science, please make a backup of your notebook at the end of each semester. If your research supervisor and PI are different people, ask your PI about which backup method they prefer.

A version of this article was also published on Quora.