Student Roadmap - What's in Your Notebook

If You are (Working as) a Scientist, It’s a Record of Your Ideas, Actions, and Evidence.

At the heart of every scientific investigation is a sense of curiosity and wonder. How does something work? What is going on here? Why is this thing not behaving like I think it should?

Science is also fundamentally based on evidence. As we try to answer questions, we use evidence and put the puzzle pieces together to make sense out of them. Scientists develop explanations based on evidence. That is one reason it is important to keep careful notes and records: sometimes important pieces of evidence slip past us when we don’t even know they’re important at the time!

Scientists vary in how they use their notebooks. A conservation biologist studying how feral pigs affect the endangered populations of bog plants on Mount Waialeale, Hawaii, which happens to be the wettest place on Earth, might use special “write in the rain” paper and pencil to make daily records during a year-long expedition and keep the notebook with her at all times. A plant geneticist might plan and record experiments to identify the genes involved in fruit ripening in a notebook with pre-numbered carbon pages, tape in gel photographs, and store the notebook in her lab drawer. In the olden days, researchers wrote in heavy leather-bound books, often with a string to tie the book shut when not in use. Today’s research notebooks are diverse; they are handwritten or electronic. No matter how they are written, this is where all aspects of an investigation are recorded as they happen.

A Few Standards Scientists Follow --- And You Can Too

  • Write their name on the cover –-- you should use only your first name when put your lab notebook on the website.
  • Include the names of other researchers who are part of the same study --- you can include the first names of your team mates.
  • Include a title describing what will be in the notebook (something like “salinity effects on germination of Zea”).
  • Write down the date of each notebook entry.
  • When they notice they have made a mistake in their notebook (and scientists do make mistakes!), they don’t erase or use white out to change the error. Instead, they make a note about the correction.

What Else Goes into My Lab Notebook?

Aim to create a complete record what you think, what you do, what you want to know, and what you discover. Lab/Science notebooks include:

  • plans and procedures
  • descriptions, observations, measurements
  • a series of detailed, day-to-day notes about activities and results
  • thoughts about the study, explanations of the findings
  • personal comments and questions to self

It’s so easy to forget little things that turn out to be important, so it helps to jot them down when you notice them. You might come in one day and find the temperature in the classroom changed dramatically because a window had been left open. Write that down. It may help explain phenomena you find later.

It’s all in the details! When plants are watered, how much water was added? The gold standard is to describe things clearly enough that someone else could pick up your lab notebook and repeat your study. No matter how careful you are, things you didn’t plan for can happen. So you’ll want to describe both your plans and what happens in equal detail.

Drawings or sketches often speak volumes. There are many ways to show what is happening in your study besides your written notes. It helps to include calculations, sketches, photographs or other illustrations.

Let your ideas and documentation from start to finish fill the margins. How did you come up your question? How did you make your solutions? How are your plants progressing? What do you think the results mean? Your notebook is your record of your study, so it is okay to include personal reflections like “I’ve got the hang of measuring now --- third time lucky.”

"I think"

Charles Darwin jotted this in his Notebook B. And below it he diagrammed his ideas of descent with modification to answer one of the biggest questions in biology: where do species come from?

The observations Darwin kept in field notebooks during his 1831-1836 travels on the Beagle kept informing his thinking for many years before The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in 1959. Throughout his life, Darwin kept investigating new questions and writing in his notebooks.

How Do Scientists Use Their Notebooks?

As a legal document

A lab notebook is valuable proof about who had an idea first and when. Researchers who apply for a patent provide their notebook as supporting evidence, and their notebooks must meet specific standards.

As a storehouse of information to share

When scientists prepare to publish in a scientific journal or create a public presentation, they turn to their notebooks. All the information about an investigation and how it was conducted can be easily retrieved, even if a long time passes between the investigation and the presentation.

As a personal learning tool

A lab notebook also serves as a personal reference to guide a scientist’s future investigations. All the notes of what worked well in an experiment, and what didn’t, are in one place for quick review. This organized system of tracking progress and creative thinking can give you a big jump on planning new research projects.