I’m starting at a new institution, and on a host of new projects, and am thinking about how I keep notes in lab.
Lab books are timeless and critical tools in doing clean science and good development; readily logging what you do in lab, what you thing about while reading papers, and what ideas come up in meetings is key to figuring out the signal from the noise. Electronic lab notebooks, of some sort, are a good idea: they are searchable, portable, and easy to incorporate in your workflow. I use both paper and digital ones; each has a separate purpose.
The paper notebook (or Tyvek, for the cleanroom set) goes everywhere with me. It hosts meeting notes, reading notes, step-by-step layouts of experiments in chronological order – all the infinitesimal successes and failures that integrate out to a completed paper or project. The paper notebook is for chronological capture and mild organization; the minimal technological barrier to overcome in getting a note in is key.
The electronic one plays a slightly different role. Here, there’s some synthesis of the pretty raw stream that gets recorded on paper. The day-by-day logs are parsed into logsheets, layouts of experiments with the experimental perturbations placed in context, (“Sidewalls are a problem from the last run. Tried another S-1818 run the usual way, but this time baked at 115 degrees; sidewalls were better.”), and some figures and graphs sketched out. I like to think of this as a step between the flow of events day-to-day, and the monthly or bimonthly slides we present at group meeting on our latest work.
I like to think of the paper notebook as insurance against losing a thought or experiment, and the electronic one as ensuring a though or experiment is contextualized in the course of events that lead to a project’s completion. Once I’m convinced that the layout I use to keep my notebook works well, I’ll publish the code.