The Value of a Notebook: Advice on keeping a research journal and lab notes

Author: Kelsey and Brianna

Every scientist, writer, thinker, or student has a notebook. Usually it’s a specific brand, binding type, or color, and it’s accompanied by a just as carefully chosen writing utensil – a fountain pen or industrial-strength fine-tipped Sharpie, perhaps. In many science disciplines this notebook is used to record everything from bits of conversations to datasets; lab sciences, especially, may demand high record-keeping standards. When it is full the notebook is dutifully labeled and placed next to its brethren, safe on a shelf for reference and nostalgia.

In this post we argue that the above procedure is the absolute minimum a scientist should be interacting with his or her notebook. In this age of constant communication, recording devices surround us. Indeed, depending on data type and the degree to which you wish to integrate a piece of data with your own intranet (as well as the internet), certain devices are more or less appropriate for any given situation. Through a carefully considered balance, a scientist can begin to record the highest-quality data with the least amount of stress…or at least notebook-specific  stress.

There are many different recording devices available. Here are our favorites:

1)      The Notebook

This traditional medium has many advantages; in paleontology, it’s often a hybrid lab notebook/research journal. It’s portable, forgiving, appropriate for talks, you can mix pictures and words or paste in bits of paper, and even tear pages out for notes or labels! The main drawback of a notebook is its preservability. (Not a word? We just made it one.) Many people write in pen, which can easily run with the addition of a little water or ethanol. Even a pencil can be erased. If the notebook gets dropped in a puddle or the ocean, the ink will run and pages will get soggy or disintegrate, and all those amazing ideas and data will be lost.

Moleskine not necessary, but gets points for aesthetics.
Moleskine not necessary, but it gets points for aesthetics. Photo credit: christgr

There are a couple ways to ameliorate this problem. The first is to Captain America-ize your notebook: get one with archival and/or waterproof paper like Rite in the Rain, a favored fieldwork notebook in paleontology. Always write in pencil – which can’t run or be removed by solvents, but can be erased – or awesome ink, though indelible pencil may be an interesting option (see here for a fascinating discussion of copying/indelible pencils and here for the quick definition). Pencil is often a good choice in the field, where many a good Micron has died a gritty ink-choked death thanks to dust and sand on the pages.

For a more thorough treatment of pen and pencil performance under various tests, including erasing, boiling water, and acetone, take a look at this excellent treatise (which also has more great advice on the reasons and finer details of keeping a lab notebook). Spoiler: Sakura Gelly Rolls, Sakura Pigma Microns, Sanford Uni-Balls, and the Zebra Sarasa pens performed well under all conditions. Sharpies are great for normal conditions but methanol, acetone, and ethanol prove fatal.

You should regularly scan, photograph, and/or photocopy your pages to provide a backup should your notebook be lost/stolen/eaten by your advisor’s dog. For bonus points, keep the backup somewhere separate from the original! Write your contact information inside the cover of your notebook with a cash reward for its safe return.

Date, location, and what you’re working on always go at the top. Number the pages if they’re not already numbered, and keep a few pages free at the front for a table of contents.

One major downside: only searchable by a written table of contents, your memory, or manually flipping through. One last advantage: you get to buy new notebooks and enjoy that delicious, productive scrape of pencil or pen across good-quality paper. Mmmm.

2)      The Digital Camera

Pictures are essential in paleontology, not only for all the beautiful fossils you will study in a museum collection but also to record the way you conduct your research. Paleontologists are a very visual bunch and it’s surprising how quickly you forget how you set up an experiment or what a locality looked like. Take pictures of EVERYTHING. Every side of the fossil, the surrounding stratigraphy, the little tree by the side of the path that signals where you should go off-trail to find your locality, the drawer you found another fossil in, the way a dissection looked halfway through, the café that was still open at midnight in the middle of nowhere…

The advantages of the tourist mindset are twofold. Not only do you have pictures that may prove useful to your research in the future, you are also recording your activities for some lucky space-age historian. History loves paleontology, and we want our discipline to be represented as completely as possible to future generations.

Make sure you have plenty of memory cards and you upload those images as soon as possible, with backups (notes Brianna, who spent a few hours photographing little teeth for her advisor and was later unable to locate said photographs).

3)      The Video Camera

Video-recording is, in some ways, an underused tool. What else gives you the ability to record 3D structures in real time? Complicated lab set-ups, dissections, and field sites can be completely recorded and commentary can be added as the camera is rolling. This can be helpful if a fossil, animal, or muscle identification or function is under debate. The ability to record the debate or quickly summarize actions will save you time, especially if your time visiting an institution is limited.

Bonus: also a great way to practice for better talks! Have a helpful friend record you running through the presentation. Much like reading your own writing aloud rather than in your head, watching yourself can make your presentation weaknesses (painfully?) clearer.

Again, upload, back up, and make sure it’s kept in a secure yet readily accessible format.

4)      The Smartphone

A useful back-up tool, in addition to perennial source of distraction. Most smartphones have the ability to take notes, pictures, and video. Pictures and video are not going to be the same quality on each individual device, though, so don’t necessarily expect to have publication-quality photographs from your phone. Taking notes is perhaps one of the most useful functions.

Importantly, make sure things going into your phone don’t disappear into the abyss – find some way of centralizing your information so notes on your phone wind up accessible and linked to notes you take elsewhere (see number 6 on this list).

Many scientific apps can be found in any given app store, and they have the potential to be helpful or distracting depending on how you use them. Some basics you might want to consider are: a scientific calculator, digital level, stopwatch, flashlight, seismometer, and perhaps even a Brunton compass.

5)      Word Document

The easiest way to take notes on a computer is by opening a Word (or Notepad, etc) document and typing. This is a fast way to take notes and the documents can be uploaded to the internet, shared with collaborators, and moved around quite simply.

Beware: without a clear filing system, you can easily accumulate hundreds of general little notes with cryptic names like “researchnotes camels.” Brianna recently spent a few hours of a work day untangling old, disorganized file structure from a more foolish point in her research career – splintered research meeting notes and brainstorm sessions everywhere, data in Excel spreadsheets whose purposes were lost to time, instructions buried in email archives, plans in the Google Notebook graveyard. It’s fixed now, but the potential for confusion and lost data was high.

Date your files, label your files, figure out some sort of organizational system. If you really want to get clever, keep file names and descriptions in your notes somewhere.

A caveat: the privacy policies of cloud storage sites in general have come under fire. Do some reading on the security and privacy of the service you choose, and put some thought into where you keep data that may be particularly sensitive. Here’s one place to start, from the writerly perspective.

For file structure, think wide rather than deep: many subfolders per folder. For the moment, underneath the main “Science!” folder, Brianna has one folder for each major ongoing project with its nickname: Thesis, Camel Feet, Cave Ponies, etc. One esteemed scientist we know puts “Damn” at the beginning of every active project’s folder name so that all the active ones are in the same place.

7)      Random Scraps of Paper

NOT RECOMMENDED! Whatever paper is lying around should only be used in an emergency, as these are easily lost or destroyed. In fact, it’s advisable to take a picture of your “napkin note” as soon as you can, before your best friend decides it’s a good time to blow their nose.

8)      Your Mind

NOT RECOMMENDED! You may think you’ll remember that critical specimen number, or how many sesamoids a camel has, but then twenty other important events will happen in the next hour and important facts will start spilling out your ears. No matter what external memory device is in your vicinity, use it! You won’t regret it.

Our personal systems:

Brianna uses a waterproof thesis-notebook (turns out to be helpful when painting dots on muddy horses in the rain) that really ought to get scanned, a regular all-the-other-paleo-research notebook that gets scanned semi-regularly, and text/Microsoft Word files in project folders in Dropbox. Next addition will be an external hard drive.
She’s been considering dipping a toe in the Evernote waters, just to have a gloriously centralized place for all project ideas/notes/things, but is still kind of grumpy that sharing notes between collaborators would be much more difficult than just sharing a Dropbox folder. Alas, the perfect solution remains out there.

Kelsey uses a similar system, with Dropbox files for digital documents, three-ring binders for projects, and notes in a single spiral-bound lab notebook. She would like to transition to a Better Notebook in the future.

A Last Thought on Redundancy

In general, your data should be safely stored in multiple, redundant ways. If any one (or, worst case, two) of those backups fail, you should be able to quickly and efficiently access all your important stuff. So, some combination of and multiples of:

Physical notebook
Physical copies of notebook
Local storage on device(s)
Cloud storage
External storage on hard drive/DVD/whatever

Of course, the challenge is to keep all these locations up to date, safe, and separate. But if someone runs off with your precious laptop, you drop your external hard drive, Time Machine decides to stop working without telling you, or you drop your notebook in a river (we told you to get waterproof!), you will be glad you put in the effort.

Extra Credit Reading

Field Notes on Science and Nature, a beautifully written and illustrated collections of essays on, well, field notes. Contributions from scientists of many types. Highly recommended reading.

Linked earlier, “Maintaining a laboratory notebook” by Collin Purrington should be required reading for everyone.

Some thoughts on blogging as a research journal.

Notes from the Thesis Whisperer about why you should keep a research journal. Make sure to browse the comments section.

What other recording devices have you found useful? Please leave a comment in the space below!

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