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How to Organize Your Lab Notebooks, References and Protocols

Scientist working with lab notebook open

Keeping accurate and comprehensive records of reagents, protocols, results and observations is critical to performing and publishing reproducible research. Similarly, careful attention to reference and electronic file management can help you be prepared for writing grants, publications and dissertations. As a result, good record-keeping and file management practices can help to increase your efficiency in the lab. Follow these tips to keep your lab notebook organized:

  • Leave several pages blank at the beginning of your notebook for a table of contents. Be sure to keep this section updated. This will help you and anyone who will continue your work in the future to easily find relevant information.
  • Include at minimum a date, title, hypothesis or objective, materials and methods, experimental observations and analysis in every notebook entry. These elements are critical not only for your own reference, but also in cases where your work may contribute to a patent. Pro-Tip: Include dates and page numbers on every page so that you can quickly and easily refer back to a specific page or experiment.
  • Prepare electronic templates for commonly performed experiments so that you don’t have to write out your entry from scratch every time. You can add specific details that would vary from experiment to experiment to the template (e.g. sample names, calculations) and then simply print out and paste the template into your lab notebook.
  • Share templates and common protocols (e.g. buffer recipes, blank results tables) with other lab members to help everyone save time and increase consistency within the lab.
  • Remember to print out and paste any computer-generated data into your lab notebook and include a reference to where the electronic version can be found (e.g. instrument and/or software used, folder and file name, etc.). Clearly label all data, including printed tables and images.
  • Correct errors using a single line to strike through the mistake. Date and initial the correction and include a brief explanation (e.g. “misspelled”, “calculation error”, etc.) for future reference.
  • Record all data, including outliers and failed experiments in your lab notebook.

Lab templates, checklists and spreadsheets

Basic Protocol Templates

Each procedure requires its own template. We’ve developed templates for basic protocols, including cell counting and dilutions, and protein quantification. Adapt these templates to suit your own specific experiments.

Follow these tips to keep your files, including references, organized:

  • Create an electronic folder structure that is intuitive not only to you, but also to anyone else in the lab who may have shared access to your files, either now or in the future. In some cases, grouping files by project or topic may make the most sense while in others grouping by experiment or data type, job function or specific task may work best. Make sure to use clear and accurate names for your folders.
  • Use clear and accurate names for any electronic files, including a date, brief description and draft or version numbers where appropriate. For example, “2017-06-24 Journal Club Presentation - Draft3.ppt” will be much easier to find six months later than will “Presentation 1.ppt”.
  • Organize papers and references as soon as you download or print them. It’s easy to lose track of documents stacked two feet high on your desk or saved haphazardly onto your computer. Prompt paper organization will avoid the need to reprint or download the same file multiple times.
  • Develop a reference filing system that allows you to easily and quickly find the references you need when it’s time to write. Organizing your references by topic and sub-topics may be helpful.
  • Use a reference manager tool (e.g. Mendeley, EndNote) that can easily integrate into your established workflow and meet your needs. For example, consider whether you need to share references with colleagues, create customized reference styles.