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. Not only will good record-keeping and file management practices benefit you, but it will help your collaborators and anyone who continues your research in the future.

Follow these tips to keep your lab notebook organized and increase your efficiency in the lab.

Ensure Your Lab Notebook Is Neat and Accessible

Information in your lab notebook should be clear and easy to find. This will help you and anyone who continues your work in the future find relevant information with ease.

  • Leave several pages blank at the beginning of your lab notebook for a table of contents. Number your pages and be sure to keep this section updated.
  • 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 needs to be accessed by others or may contribute to a patent.
  • Include dates and page numbers on every page so that you can quickly and easily refer back to a specific page or experiment. You can also label your tubes with page numbers from your lab notebook for quick reference.
  • 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. This will keep things neat and prevent confusion from others trying to read through your work.

Use Templates to Save Time

Prepare electronic templates for commonly performed experiments so you don’t have to write out your entry from scratch every time. Simply print out and paste the template into your lab notebook and then add specific details that would vary from experiment to experiment to the template (e.g. sample names, calculations).

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.


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.

Include All of Your Data

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. Be sure to record all data, including outliers and failed experiments, in your lab notebook.


Develop an Effective Electronic Filing System

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. In other cases, grouping by experiment or data type, job function, or specific task may work best. Make sure to use clear and descriptive names for your folders.
  • Use clear and descriptive 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”.
  • 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.

Manage Papers and References

  • 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 organization will avoid the need to reprint or download the same file multiple times.
  • 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 or create customized reference styles.

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References

  1. Labguru (2011) 7 Ways You Can be a More Efficient Researcher. Retrieved from blog.labguru.com
  2. Greenspon, A. (2015) 10 ways to make your PhD experience easier and more enjoyable. Retrieved from https://www.elsevier.com
  3. Office of Intramural Trainings and Education, National Institutes of Health. Keeping a Lab Notebook: Basic Principles and Best Practices. Retrieved from https://www.training.nih.gov
  4. Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Making the Right Moves: a Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. Retrieved from https://www.hhmi.org
  5. NIST Weights and Measures. Electronic File Organization Tips. Retrieved from https://www.nist.gov
  6. Stanford Libraries. Best practices for file naming. Retrieved from http://library.stanford.edu