From my first experiment in primary school (when I dissolved salt in some water and wrote down how long it took) all the way up until the last time I made a saline buffer, I have been writing things down in a lab book.

Well I say “writing” obviously most of my lab books are filled with a series of marks that future historians will look at as some kind of interpretive ink dance.

But not any more because thanks to nearly 16 years experience I have finally cracked the secrets of writing a good lab book. And providing you don’t follow any of the following steps you will be able to write a good lab book too.

Choosing your actual lab book

Now I’ve written before about the joys of electronic lab books. But despite that article being about 5 years ago, electronic lab book technology hasn’t progressed much and supervisor-opinions of electronic lab books have progressed even less so you’ll need to choose a physical paper book.

Here you have two choices. Either you can go for a simple note book available from any stationary store, craft shop or newsagents. Or special lab books that have “lab book” printed on the front with gold lettering that are 10 to 20 times the cost of a simple note book.

Obviously, you should pay the extra for the expensive ‘lab’ lab book as other lab books are probably not compatible with working in a lab or something. The adverts seem to make it clear that if you don’t use a proper ‘lab’ lab book your science will be cursed. I’d listen to them if I was you as I’m sure they are telling the truth… not just trying to sell overpriced note books.

Labelling lab book pages

Now this is a step that almost everyone misses out. You need to properly label each and every page of your lab book with official lab book things. Now some lab books already come with page numbers which are great but you need some way of proving that you wrote it.

Now some people just have a simple sign off box in the front. This doesn’t go far enough. You need final sign off boxes on every page of your lab book. Then you need to make sure each and every line has a sign off box so that you can prove you wrote each line. Finally make sure on each section there’s a small box to press your bloody thumb print so that you can DNA verify each page.

You can’t be too careful what with all the identify theft you read about these days.

Setting out your experiment

Now when it comes to actually writing up your reports you need to make sure you fully explain your thought processes, background and motivations.

At school this often means writing a short introduction, but in the real world this needs expanding to reflect how research is conducted, so replace the introduction with some three other headings.

The first should be “why my boss wants me to do this” which needs to have a short summary of what your boss wrote in the email that told you to run the experiment.

The second should be “what my boss wants the result to be” this should explain what your boss is expecting you to achieve. It is very normal for this expectation to not be within the realms of known science.

Thirdly, you need the section “what I think will really happen” which should try to predict the results within known science or at least adjacent to known science.

Results and instructions

The core tenet of a lab book is that you must prepare it such that another researcher could pick it up and immediately repeat your experiment. So when writing your instructions try to write like you’d expect other researchers to write to help them feel at home reading your lab book.

In practical terms this means you should use as many colloquial terms as possible, random acronyms and occasionally small sketches. These don’t need to be sequential, writing things in order would be very strange to a researcher.

Results follow in much the same way. While researchers like tables in papers, in lab books they take more of a free flow scheme. But be sure to label everything with clear tags like “First one”, “Next bit” and “this one is wrong but use it” and scrawl them all over the page, if needed scrawl them on the previous pages and on the back cover.

Choosing when to write it up

Now you’d think it would be a good idea to write up your work as soon as you can. Getting it all down while it’s fresh in your mind or while you have a moment between reagent steps. While this seems like the obvious way to do it this has one significant downside.

If you ever find yourself, for some unlikely reason, locked away from your lab for 3 months then you wouldn’t have anything to laboriously go back through and write up properly….*ahem*.

So to really perfect your lab book you need to make sure not to write anything up until you are trapped in your room, have a sufficient supply of snack cheese and a strange tiger based documentary to play in the background.


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Categories: ErrantWritings


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