Guidelines for Laboratory Notebooks

The laboratory notebook can take two slightly different formats. In one, you are describing an experiment, complete with procedures, results and conclusions, in the other you are describing observations which can be made either in the laboratory or field. The format of each type of notebook is somewhat different as described below.

1. Experimental Laboratory Notebooks

  1. The first page is reserved for a table of contents.
  2. All subsequent right hand pages are numbered consecutively. The left hand pages are used only for calculation or to append graphs.
  3. Common media and other recipes can be placed in the notebook starting with the last page and working forward.
  4. Each entry receives an unambiguous title and the date of initiation of that experiment. Keep in mind that you are not writing a diary, but rather you are giving instructions on how procedures are to be performed and are recording the results of the experiments. Your notebook is also the place where you can record any reflections made during experiments.
  5. Each entry consists of: Introduction The introduction consists of a description of theory relevant to the experiment and the rationale for the experiment. Experiments are not just exercises performed for instructors. State what is to be learned. Protocol The protocol consists of a list of instructions that you will follow as you perform the desired experiment. The instructions will be in your own words. All relevant details must be stated. Imagine that you have just been handed the list of instructions and must proceed blindly. Is all the necessary information present? Results Results are recorded in tables as they are obtained. It is advantageous to have the tables constructed ahead of time so that no data are forgotten. Data analysis in the form of statistics or graphs is also included in this section. All figures and tables are to be described in words, so that the tables and the text can exist independently. Avoid interpreting your data. Interpretation is saved for the next section. Discussion The discussion section is the place where the results are interpreted and discussed in the context of theory and related research presented in the introduction. Discuss both the validity of the results and their biological meaning. For example, are the results sound, statistically significant, based on well grounded assumptions, etc. Are there alternative interpretations of the data? It is appropriate for you to give your opinions and hypotheses to account for your results. Just maintain the distinction between observation (data) and interpretation. Keep in mind that an experiment that did not give the expected results must still be thoroughly analyzed. Conclusions The conclusion summarizes the main take-home lesson resulting from the experiment. The section contains your suggestions for improvements and recommendations for follow-up experiments, for example those that may develop into extension projects. Show in this section that you know the context of the experiment.

2. Descriptive Laboratory Notebook/Fieldbook

  1. The first page is reserved for a table of contents.
  2. All subsequent right-hand pages are numbered consecutively. The left-hand pages can be used for calculations, sketches, or to append graphs.
  3. Each entry receives an unambiguous title, date, exact location of species collected or observed. For instance, if you participated in a collecting trip at the Steens Mountains, you would label the exact locality of specimens collected or described in your notebook as follows: Wet meadow in deep loam surrounded by aspen, 1 mile North of Jackman Park on Steens Mtn. Loop Road (mileage 47,892.1). Leave room for geographic coordinates (Range, Township, Section or latitude/longitude).
  4. Include a list of species collected and/or observed, with a type locality for each.
  5. Observations may be made of two kinds -- sketches and written descriptions. Sketches should be large and have enough detail to clearly convey what is being sketched. The single best criterion for knowing what to include is: Will I be able to interpret this in 5 years?   
    1. Sketches must be labeled. Be sure to label the key feature(s) noted.
    2. Provide orientation and scale. Provide dimensions by a small bar of a standard length that you designate (10µm, 1mm, 1dm).
    3. Provide some detail. Usually a few characteristic features should be sketched and labeled. If more than 2-4 features highlighted you are advised to make an additional sketch.
  6. Add written descriptions to complement your sketches. In many labs you are asked to describe certain characteristics. Take a few notes that indicate the importance of labeled structures, observations not captured in sketches, etc.. This is analogous to the results section of an experimental lab write-up .
  7. Discussion section. (Also see Experimental Lab Notebook). Often, summaries of activities need to be written to tie together several sketches or written descriptions that are interrelated in some way. Interpret your observations in the discussion section, as well as make inferences (tentative interpretations) and overall conclusions.