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Lab notebooks 1: Maintaining a Physical lab notebook

A lab notebook is not just something to scribble notes onto – it is an official record of your activities in the lab, to be used as a reference for a number of things. Therefore, it is vital that it is kept not only up to date, but also kept in a way that can be easily understood by anyone looking through it. Here, we discuss some of the essential considerations for maintaining a paper-based lab notebook.

Ensure you record diligently and clearly

When you join a lab, you will be contributing to the lab’s overall research efforts, and only very rarely will you be doing work which cannot also be applied by your colleagues. You’ll most likely be introducing new techniques or methods to your lab group, and you’ll end up the expert in that particular technique by the end of your stay there. To make sure that this can be passed on, it is vital that any technique you perform, especially ones new to the lab, are recorded clearly, legibly and thoroughly. 

After your time in the lab, your lab book may end up being the only source of a protocol, so make sure it can easily be read by anyone. This is particularly important if a publication is in preparation, and you are not there to take people through your work.

What many don’t realise is that lab notebooks, in many countries, are considered legal documents, which may form part of your institution’s overall intellectual property (IP). Therefore, again, it is important that it is very clearly written.

Comply with your institution’s data handling regulations

Moreover, you have to make sure that you comply with any regulation that may be in place governing the format of your notes.

  • It is common practice to use a notebook with pre-numbered pages.
  • There might be a rule that you don’t remove or tear out pages, even if you made a mistake. Instead, cross out that page and note down that you have made a mistake.
  • Dates are also very important, as they ensure that certain events can be correlated to the chronology of your work.

Understand the significance of a physical lab notebook

In this digital day and age, you may feel that it seems odd to put so much importance on a handwritten document. In fact, the reason a physical lab notebook is still widely used is because it is almost impossible to doctor a physical notebook, whereas a digital lab notebook can be more readily tampered with. 

Be aware of the quirks (or shortcomings) of a physical lab book

Additionally, it may be strange to consider that it is still normal practice to print out results of experiments and glue them into your lab book, which can quickly double or triple the thickness of your lab book. What’s more is that if you work in a wet lab, disaster could strike if you were to spill a solvent onto your lab book, blurring months of work into a sad, homogenous blob of ink. It’s worth being conscious of the quirks that come with paper notebooks, to make sure you integrate them effectively into your routine.


Maintaining your lab book is undoubtedly the single most important piece of administrative work that you, as a researcher, will have to do. With it being paper, it’s important to be aware of your physical lab book’s limitations, when compared to digital lab notebooks, and to ensure it is used correctly so as not to run into difficulties further down the line.


Read next (second) in series: Lab notebooks 2: Selecting and using a Digital lab notebook


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