How to Keep a Lab Notebook

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These notes on Lab Notes were adapted from a presentation by Seth Marder


A lab notebook is:

  • A legal document that:
Establishes date of inventions
Establishes that you actually did the work; if it is not in the notebook it didn’t happen
  • The primary place people in the future can go to reproduce your work
  • It is written for someone else to read and understand.
That person could be a student, or in fact in patent litigation cases an attorney, judge or even jury.


A lab notebook should be:

  • Bound
  • Consecutively numbered
  • Have high quality paper
  • Have your name on the front.
  • Have entries that are written in pen that will not smear or dissolve in solvents
  • Never erase or “white out” things in a lab notebook
  • Errors should have line drawn through them and the correct entry should be shown below it
  • It is the property of your institution

How to keep a lab notebook video- UW Center for Commercialization


  • In general, it should not leave the building (copies can)
  • It should provide a summary of what the experiment is trying to achieve
  • It should be signed, read and witnessed everyday by another person, not directly involved in your project
Remember it is a legal document
Established date of inventions
Established that you actually did the work; if it is not in the notebook it didn’t happen
  • It should not have slang, jargon, or short-hand that is not easily recognized by someone completely unfamiliar to your work
  • It should be complete

Repeated Procedures

  • If you follow a literature procedure give the complete reference.
  • Regardless of whether it is in the literature or not, the first time you do it write down everything you have done.
Be sure to explicitly point out deviations from the published procedure
  • If you repeat the procedure, just refer to the name of the procedure and the appropriate page(s) of your notebook: however, note all amounts, yields, and changes in procedure.

Important Do's

  • Keep a photocopy of notebook pages outside the lab
  • When in doubt write it down- it may not seem important now but could later
  • Create table of contents
  • Include all observations,
  • Limit opinion and conclusions
For example avoid phrases such as --- the reaction failed, the experiment didn’t work.
  • First thing every day write in the date
If you have multiple experiments over multiple days always give the date.
  • Use continuation pages
give the page number things are continued on and the page number they were continued from
  • Void all blank pages clearly
  • Always record the information directly into the notebook, not on loose paper, not into a computer
  • Include calculations as appropriate


  • In the US if two sets of people claim inventorship, the patent is awarded to the first to invent, which is determined in complex legal proceedings
  • If in examining a patent a reference is cited against a patent application by the patent examiner, an applicant can swear back to the date of invention to demonstrate it preceded the reference
Your notebook is the key piece of evidence to support this date.
For it to have it full legal value it should be read and by another person not directly involved in the research.
This person should indicated that they have read and understood the entries and should sign and date it


  • The notebook should show a person where to go to find primary data
  • Data should be kept in a separate folder or notebook, with location noted in the book
  • All loose data should be clearly labeled with a notebook ID# and a date
  • Keep all data whether you think it is good, bad, important or unimportant

Sample Pages

These are pages from an actual lab notebook. See how many of the desirable features you can identify.

Further Reading

Writing the Laboratory Notebook by Howard M. Kanare, published by the American Chemical Society,Washington DC