How to Keep a Lab Notebook

Keeping a lab notebook to accompany activities in the lab, from making changes in protocols or simply for brainstorming ideas, is essential good practice for any scientist. From Ph.D. students to postdocs – even those working in industry R&D – the humble lab book serves as a legally valid record of intellectual property, and a handy ledger for any other techniques developed during research. However, like any practice in the lab, there are some general rules that are necessary for maintaining the legitimacy of your lab notebook. Here is a quick rundown on lab book layout, examples of format and other lab book guidelines for how it should be structured.


How to keep a lab notebook

  • General lab notebook setup
  • How to write in a lab notebook
  • Lab book guidelines for content
  • labfolder’s Electronic Lab Notebook


General lab notebook setup

As a general rule, it must be impossible to tear any pages out from the book without leaving evidence. So a ring-bound document won’t do. Pages should also be numbered, if they aren’t already, with a couple of pages saved at the beginning of a lab notebook table of contents.

Next, you need to do the following:

  • Clearly label your lab notebook on the front cover with your name, lab or institution contact number and your work email, project name, supervisor and course or department. Then make a copy of these details on the first page or inside the front cover.
  • It may be useful when writing the lab notebook to only use the left or right page, leaving the opposite side for rough notes or space to paste print-outs. These can always be voided later.
  • If there isn’t space already reserved at the bottom of each page, reserve a section for a colleague or supervisor to date and sign your work after each entry.


How to write in a lab notebook

To start, the basic lab notebook format starts a fresh page for each new experiment. There should be no gaps or white spaces between or within entries and data is entered as it is produced (real-time). Entries should also be dated chronologically, include a quick list of the names of any other participants that were involved in the experiment and lastly be written in permanent ink (not pencil!). Using a Ball-point pen is also recommended, as the indentations serve as a more obvious trace – and may be useful for carbon copy tear-outs based books.


  • If you do end up with any gaps on the backs of pages or between entries, cross them out to void them, so it’s not possible for anyone else to enter information later.
  • Making sure when you write a lab journal that any additional diagrams, side notes, and tables are labeled clearly and that these can be cross-referenced to the corresponding lab notebook page. This produces a seamless record and helps avoid the need to write out full protocols again and again.
  • If any of these additional materials are digital, a USB or data chip should be secured inside the cover. Digital entries should also be stored in chronological order.
  • Keep dates and page numbers consistent, and beware of any ambiguous formatting (e.g., European versus US order of writing month and day, decimal points).

Lab notebook example:

Lab Notebook Example

“Connected Researchers”


Lab book guidelines for content

The general idea is that someone can pick up your notebook and easily follow any protocols which you may have developed or observations and calculations you’ve made to achieve your results. This works towards improving the reproducibility of your research and solidifies its value as a legal record of any IP you may develop.

  • Having a detailed title of the experiment and a quick objective as to what you were doing that day helps as a reference should you need to go back on yourself.
  • It includes lists of materials: There are hundreds of different mediums that can be used for cultures, so listing catalog numbers and names could help save time later.
  • Include all details of instruments you used: settings, manufacturer and other calibration or positioning tips you may have employed. Remember, reproducibility is paramount and these seemingly insignificant details may be the key for troubleshooting later.
  • Printouts of images – particularly for histology work – helps when describing morphology. But again, these must should labelled carefully with date, time and sample numbers.

This may also seem obvious, but since your lab notebook needs to be the first record of any results you make (no jotting them down on scraps of paper to enter into your book later) it’s worth remembering that you should think carefully before writing in your paper lab notebook.


labfolder’s Electronic Lab Notebook

Let’s face it, it is kind of unusual that you would still need a guide on how to write a lab journal or find yourself looking for a lab notebook template to ensure you use the proper format. These manual tasks are highly cumbersome and in most working environments outside of the research field, are already digitized and automated. With labfolder’s electronic lab notebook (ELN), many of these tasks aren’t necessary. An ELN replaces a paper-based data entry system with a digital record for who, what, where and when, and this can be cloud based.

  • With labfolder’s ELN, data can be automatically structured. Unit conversion is also automatic – and searchable. For example, if you have one data entry written in microliter (μl), and the same data point written in milliliter (ml) elsewhere, both entries will appear in search results.
  • Entries can be edited and corrected, with an automatic edit and version history of any changes made for integrity. With labfolder’s Material Database (MDB) functionality, materials are recorded digitally with custom fields, including how they were used and which version for each experiment. The team can also be notified when an item is out of stock, as it is an unlimited inventory which updates in real-time. Access to the MDB can also be customised, for private or restricted access to inventory lists.
  • Using an ELN also all allows images to be uploaded directly to each entry, for a reliable and reproducible photo record.

This will mean knowing how to keep a good lab notebook will be much more intuitive, and not a case of time wasting damage control when it comes to writing up your results.

Thinking of switching paper for digital? Navigating through all the ELN options can be tricky, so check out our Comprehensive Buyers’ guide to the Electronic Lab Notebook to discern which would be best for your needs.

Curious to see labfolder in action? You can and try the features for yourself.

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