Best Notebook Practices

Why Laboratory Notebooks are Important

A lab notebook establishes a permanent record detailing what was done during the course of a project.  Laboratory notebooks can also serve as a source for assigning credit to lab members, addressing concerns related to scientific misconduct or invention derivation, and establishing a researcher’s inventive contribution to a patentable technology.

Research Records Should be Permanent, Complete and Continuous

What to Record in a Notebook

Records must be sufficiently detailed and clear to allow “someone skilled in the art” to recreate the work and to conduct additional work without the direct assistance of the original researcher.  Document what was done, why it was done, who suggested it, who did it, when it was done, what the results were (positive or negative), what conclusions were drawn, and future plans.

All details of a project should be recorded, including raw data and final results of experiments, protocols and designs of experiments, calculations, details of equipment use and a key to any abbreviations used. Include data from recording instruments, drawings, photographs, charts, etc.

Record all research and developmental efforts, including ideas generated during meetings, and the source of the ideas.  Record dates when an idea was conceived and when work on the idea was started and completed. Notebook entries should ideally be made on the same day as the event, or as soon thereafter as possible (and indicate when the actual work was done).

All paper entries/pages should be signed (full signature) and dated (with year), as well as witnessed and dated.  The witness should be someone who has a basic knowledge of the work being conducted, but not be a co-inventor or someone working on the project.

Record plans for future experiments.

Be factual! Avoid any negative comments concerning the project or the results of an experiment and comments reflecting the nature, quality or utility of the results of a research project.

Document when, where, and to whom your research is presented.

Researchers can share laboratory notebooks as long as each researcher fulfills their responsibility of signing, dating and obtaining witnesses for laboratory notebook pages with their research entries.


Paper Laboratory Notebooks

  • A paper laboratory notebook should be bound with numbered pages.
  • Notebooks should be numbered consecutively by lab or researcher.
  • Include a detailed table of contents, with a list of any abbreviations, acronyms and unique codes used.
  • All entries should be consecutive; don’t skip pages, and “X” through unused spaces.
  • Write legibly, using permanent, waterproof ink.
  • Error correction: Do not erase entries or blot them out. Simply draw one line through the incorrect information and add the corrected information or reference the location of the corrected information. All crossed-out items should be signed and dated. An explanation of the amendment should be included, also.
  • When adding printouts, images, drawings, etc: Permanently attach these items to a notebook page with tape (preferably double-sided); for each attachment, on two sides sign your name so the signature crosses from the attached item onto the notebook page, and on the other two sides, write the date in the same way.
  • When not in active use (e.g., overnight), store notebooks in a drawer or cabinet to avoid damage from fire, spills, etc.
  • When completed, notebooks should be maintained in a central location, preferably in a fireproof safe or filing cabinet. Ideally, notebooks should be reproduced (e.g., scanned or copied), and the copies should be securely stored at a separate location.

Using hybrid paper-electronic record systems

Most campus researchers maintain hard copy laboratory notebooks in combination with saving email and research data electronically. Scientific experiments often generate large amounts of data, making their inclusion in hard copy laboratory notebooks unrealistic.  In a hybrid system, it is important to record key data, summaries, and analyses in the paper lab notebook (as recommended above), but large amounts of supporting data can be managed as follows:

  •  For hard copy data, create 3-ring binder ‘supplements’, cross-referenced to and from the primary hard copy laboratory notebooks; coordinate the name of your lab notebook with the supplement (e.g., notebook 20 and binders 20-SupplA and 20-SupplB). Sign and date the first page of data per experiment.
  • Save electronic data to a read-only CD, also cross-referenced to the primary hard copy laboratory notebook. Include a table of contents document. Again, coordinate the hard copy lab notebook numbers with the read-only CDs (e.g., 20-CD A, 20-CD B, etc.).
  • If a researcher is saving research data electronically, use a digital certificate to authenticate each electronic document, including email or digital research output. To obtain a digital certificate free of charge from DoIT, follow the steps on www.cio.wisc.edu/security/digitalCert.
  • The ability to locate electronic research files is paramount. Each lab should develop a standard naming convention for e-folders and e-documents based on the names of the research projects and sub-projects, the number of the relevant paper laboratory notebook, and the dates. Use capital letters to differentiate between words, not spaces or underscores (e.g.,MassSpec). Be consistent!
  • Note in your lab notebook when your department or lab runs backups.
  • Periodically take screen shots of your folder and document hierarchies, and secure those in your hard copy lab notebook. This can save countless hours when searching for elusive e-files.

Electronic Records

If data are maintained electronically, consider that electronic records/notebooks must achieve the same objectives as hard copy laboratory notebooks (see above).  Electronic records must credibly document a researcher’s work in sufficient detail, including the date of creation, the content when created and the details related to any subsequent amendments, and the records must be reproducible in human readable form.  Most court cases don’t occur until many years after the electronic record creation, so record management considerations are critical, including issues such as file storage and software maintenance.

When developing a system for research records that includes (wholly or in part) electronic records, please consider the following criteria, as they affect the viability and credibility of research records:

  • Permanency of records: archive in electronic or paper form?
  • Amended records: can you tell what was changed, when, and by whom? Is it possible to access and read the old versions?
  • Security: have the records been altered/compromised? Are they safe from disasters and protected against loss?
  • Identity management: who created a record and made any changes? Can records be signed and witnessed?
  • Are the file locations permanent? Could a linked file be changed? Will the link be reliable or could the link be broken?
  • Where are data stored? Personal laptops or lab/department computers? If using a service, are data stored inside or outside the US? Cloud-based (where)?
  • Would the use of the specific software affect ownership of the data?
  • Labs/researchers may be required to comply with data management requirements from institutions, funding agencies, sponsors, etc.

Additional resources:

Information regarding the US Government’s recommendations for research records can be found at: