“Good science requires good record keeping.”¹
The laboratory notebook has changed little over hundreds of years. Part journal, part scrapbook, it is a record of both what a researcher thinks and what she does. It documents her day-to-day hypotheses, experiments, observations, analyses, and conclusions. Think of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of a flying machine or Darwin’s detailed field notes from his voyage on the Beagle. In today’s modern laboratories, researchers use the same kind of bound paper notebook to document their work.
The 1876 notebook of Alexander Graham Bell, who patented the first practical telephone.
A graduate student at the Harvard AIDS Initiative examines a gel used to study T cell responses in HIV-infected individuals.
Each member of a research group is responsible for his or her own notebook to record what work was performed, including the how, when and why of each task. Entries in a lab notebook should be understandable to others and in enough detail to allow another scientist to repeat the work and obtain the same results.
Best practices to insure the integrity of information include using a bound notebook with numbered pages. No pages should be skipped or removed. Entries should be made in ink and dated. To correct a mistake, a line should be drawn through the original entry, rather than erasing it. All corrections and alterations should be dated.
Melissa Zahralban-Steele and Tapiwa Nkhisang, researchers in Dr. Max Essex’s Lab, review data from a recent experiment.
In addition to paper notebooks, laboratory data is also collected in binders of materials such as gels, slides, photographs, x-ray films, and computer printouts.
Evidence & Intellectual Property
In the past, lab notebooks were used as proof of invention in patent cases. In 2013, the U.S. Patent Office switched from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system. Since then, the right to a patent lies with the first person to file a patent application for a particular invention, regardless of the date of invention. “As a result, laboratory notebooks will remain important, but may carry less weight,” according to the article, Should You Throw Away Your Lab Notebook?
Dr. Tun-Hou Lee discovered gp120, the glycoprotein used in HIV/AIDS tests, while working in the Essex Lab. His notebooks helped lawyers successfully defend the gp120 patent.
Lab notebooks should be safeguarded, even after a research project has ended. If questions ever arise about data or the details of a particular experiment, researchers can reference old notebooks for the answers. Funding agencies such as the NIH and the FDA have guidelines for record retention. Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Research has its own policies on the management and retention of research data.
Though cases of scientific misconduct are rare, during a formal investigation, lab notebooks may be seized as evidence to help prove or disprove allegations.
Move to Electronic Notebooks
Paper lab notebooks may soon go the way of vinyl record albums. New software packages with names like Labguru or Benchling make it easy for researchers to enter data directly onto a computer. Compared to paper, electronic data is easier to search, customize, share, encrypt, and access from outside the lab.
There are drawbacks, however. Electronic notebooks are subject to computer viruses, data breaches, and software compatibility issues.
Bobby Brooke Herrera, a graduate student in Dr. Phyllis Kanki’s Lab, copies data from his notebook to a computer file.
Harvard’s Countway Library, one of the world’s largest medical libraries, is home to the Center for the History of Medicine.
While many research labs are moving to electronic notebooks, archivists are working diligently to preserve the history contained in more conventional notebooks. Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine, a leading resource for the history of health and medicine, collects lab notebooks (regardless of format) as part of the historical record.
Dr. Max Essex’s lab notebooks from 1969 show his groundbreaking work on the mechanism of transmission of feline leukemia. These and Essex’s other early papers are archived at the Center for the History of Medicine.
Text by Martha Henry, photos by Lucia Ricci. Special thanks to Max Essex, John Freeman, Don Hamel, Bobby Brooke Herrera, Tun-Hou Lee, Heather Mumford, Jess Murphy, Tapiwa Nkhisang, Melissa Zahralban-Steele.
¹Guidelines for Scientific Record Keeping in the Intramural Research Program at the NIH, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health