Last reviewed 11 February 2016

In the first of two articles exploring data management in laboratories, Dr Lisa Bushby highlights the importance of keeping good laboratory notes, offers some tips for writing them and asks if it is inevitable that laboratory books become electronic.

A well-maintained and properly documented laboratory notebook establishes a permanent record of research protocols and results which can be referred to in the future, most commonly in the preparation of scientific papers and reports.

Importance of keeping good laboratory notes

There are a number of important reasons for keeping good notes in a laboratory notebook. Perhaps most crucially, the act of writing the notebook ensures those carrying out experiments stop and think about what it is they are doing.

Some experiments may take months or years to complete, and analysing data and writing up results will be impossible without decent records. It will not be possible to remember all the critical details without a written record. Indeed, it may be that the critical points are not uncovered until well after an experiment has ended.

Occasionally, it may be necessary to prove who did what and when, particularly in the case of filing a patent in the USA where laboratory books may be consulted in a court that requires inventors to satisfy “first to invent” criteria. For example, there have been many instances in the USA in which a patent was granted to an applicant who filed second because the second applicant was able to prove that he or she had conceived the invention first and was diligent in reducing the invention to practice. In the case of Yeda Research and Development Company Ltd v ImClone Systems and Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Yeda alleged that three scientists from Israel were the true inventors of ImClone Systems’ cancer drug Erbitux. The court held that the three scientists from Israel were the true inventors who should be named in the patent, and that there was no documentary evidence suggesting that any of the other named inventors had made inventive contributions.

Finally, the experiment rationale and procedure should be understandable to other people for two key reasons.

  1. Verification or reproduction of procedures: the experiment should be able to be repeated to verify its outcome.

  2. If an experiment is paused owing to holiday, accident, equipment failure, etc there needs to be a permanent record of work done, experimental details, operating procedures, etc to pick up where it was left off.

What constitutes good laboratory notes

Oxford University offers the following practical suggestions for keeping a laboratory notebook.

  • Pages should be bound and numbered sequentially. Loose-leaf notebooks should be avoided and permanent bindings used to avoid any suggestion that pages might have been removed or inserted. Laboratory notebooks in a series should also be numbered sequentially.

  • There should be at least two copies of every notebook: one for the researcher and one for the laboratory manager. In principle, the laboratory manager should retain the original version of all laboratory notebooks, but if this is not practical, the copy retained by the laboratory manager should be a certified copy.

  • Complete laboratory books should be retained for a minimum of six years — longer if possible.

  • Dates should be recorded unambiguously (ie 8 July 2016 rather than 8/7/16 or 7/8/16) to avoid confusion arising if the dates are written in the UK and read in the USA.

  • Corrections should be clearly visible and struck through with a single line. Correction fluid should not be used.

  • Entries (made in indelible ink and not in pencil) should be consistent and continuous. Spaces and other anomalies should be clearly explained in the text.

  • Ideas should be recorded contemporaneously to the extent possible.

  • Entries should be signed and dated promptly and absences for a period of time noted appropriately.

  • Entries should be witnessed and corroborated regularly by a scientist who is not working on the same project, but who is competent to understand the work.

  • Ideas should be expressed in a clear narrative style. Each individual entry should be intelligible to another investigator without specific explanation.

  • Investigators working together on a joint project should each maintain a separate record of the research project.

  • Electronic notes should be avoided. However, if such notes are taken, hard copies of the entries should be printed out regularly, signed, dated and affixed to consecutive pages of a bound notebook.

  • All labels and diagrams should be permanently affixed in the notebook. Temporary measures such as staples or paperclips should not be used.

  • Entries should never be changed or added to at a later date.

Electronic note keeping

There are a variety of electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) options available, and it may seem an inevitable move for all laboratories in the digital age. However, when considering moving over to an electronic system, it should be remembered that paper notebooks are cheap, easy to use, portable and currently widely used.

Many laboratories already have ELN systems in place, with the key advantages being that:

  • ELNs can be backed up easily compared to traditional notebooks

  • it is easy to share data and protocols using ELNs, even if collaborators are on a different site or even in a different country

  • most data collected is electronic

  • laboratory managers can track experiments in real time.

ELNs have the ability to be everything a paper notebook is and more, eg allow laboratory instrumentation to be interfaced with the notebook, capture audio and video during an experiment, annotate data or searchability.

ELN apps such as Agilent’s OpenLAB ELN or labguru allow laboratory staff to use laptops or tablets in the laboratory for note keeping. One question that has been raised is whether the touch interface that is so attractive in the mobile consumer market can be adapted to laboratory environments, although some researchers have found that they can secure devices in ziplock bags while working at the bench and that touchscreen sensitivity is maintained with most protective disposable gloves.

ELNs provide additional value through use of data and information, creation and maintenance of a knowledge repository, and improved efficiency in the laboratory. With an ELN it is possible to record, organise and secure experimental information to find, share and reuse critical knowledge globally. ELNs may not be ubiquitous today, but it seems likely their use will be in the future.

Conclusion

Keeping good laboratory notes require discipline to detail each variable of the experiment and to date the work. It is vital that enough information is provided so that the experiment can be repeated in the future if necessary and that any legal claim to the work can be justified.

How notebooks are kept, whether paper-based or electronic, is a decision for the laboratory manager and laboratory workers, as to what works best for them.

The follow-up article will focus on electronic data management, in particular backing up and security of laboratory data.