Lab Book Guidelines

If you would like to receive more information and/or training on keeping a lab book, contact Victoria Sutton, Intellectual Property Associate at WARF.

Why You Must Maintain Detailed Laboratory Notebooks

Photo by UW-Madison, University Communications
Photo by UW-Madison, University Communications

A lab notebook establishes a permanent record detailing what was done during the course of a project and what inventions were made and when. Lab notebooks can be critical in the patenting process. A United States patent filed before March 16, 2013, is granted to the inventor who was the first to conceive of the invention. Therefore the laboratory notebook is evidence for proving inventorship or first-to-invent. A United States patent filed on or after March 16, 2013, is granted to the inventor who was the first to file the invention. Even with this change, it is still important to maintain a laboratory notebook as there are proceedings that occur where information in a laboratory notebook is critical.

Records Should be Permanent, Complete and Continuous

The laboratory notebook should be bound with numbered pages. Include a detailed table of contents with necessary explanations for abbreviations, acronyms or unique codes.

All entries should be made consecutively. Do not skip pages or leave large empty areas; "X" off unused page sections as necessary.

Use permanent, waterproof ink.

Write legibly. Illegible entries are worthless.

Do not erase entries or blot them out. If errors need to be corrected, simply draw one line through the incorrect information and add the corrected information. All crossed out items should be signed and dated. Reasons for the correction should be noted.

What to Record in a Notebook

Records must be sufficiently detailed and clear to allow "someone skilled in the art" to recreate the work and to conduct additional work without the direct assistance of the original researcher. Record what was done, why it was done, who suggested it, who did it, when it was done, what the results were (positive or negative) and what conclusions were drawn.

All details of a project should be recorded:

This includes raw data and final results of experiments, protocols and designs of experiments, calculations on which the results are based, details of equipment use and a key to any abbreviations used. Include raw data from recording instruments, drawings, photographs, charts, computer printouts, etc. Permanently attach these items to a notebook page. Sign your name so the signature crosses both the attached item and the notebook page.

Researchers can share laboratory notebooks as long as each researcher fulfills their responsibility of signing, dating and obtaining witnesses for laboratory notebook pages with their research entries. A shared laboratory notebook is an excellent way to document who is creating original science versus running experiments, and may be crucial in settling inventorship disputes.

Record all research and developmental efforts, including ideas generated during meetings, noting sources of ideas.

Record dates when an idea was formed and when work on the idea was started and completed.

Record plans for future experiments and their protocols.

Entries should be made on the same day as the event. If this is not possible, enter the information as soon as possible thereafter and indicate when the actual work was done.

Document when, where and to whom your research is presented.

Sign and date each notebook page with your complete name and date, including year.

A witness should sign and date each notebook page as soon as possible, preferably the same day, but within one week. The witness should not be a co-inventor or someone working on the project, but someone who has a basic knowledge of the work being conducted. An unwitnessed notebook page is uncorroborated and of little value as a legal document.

Be factual! Never include in a notebook an opinion on patentability, or any comments regarding the amount of additional effort required to complete the experiment or commercialize the results. Avoid any negative comments concerning the project or the results of an experiment and comments reflecting the nature, quality or utility of the results of a research project.

A majority of campus researchers maintain hard copy laboratory notebooks in combination with saving email and research data electronically. Scientific experiments often generate large amounts of data, making their inclusion in hard copy laboratory notebooks unrealistic.

Ways to handle data not recorded in a hard copy laboratory notebook:

  • If you have hard copy data, create 3-ring binder supplements, cross-referenced to and from the primary hard copy laboratory notebooks. Coordinate your laboratory notebook with the name of the supplement. Examples: If your lab notebook number is 20, name 3-ring binder supplements 20-Suppl A, 20-Suppl B, etc. or 20-Suppl 1, 20-Suppl 2, etc. Sign and date the first page of data per experiment.
  • You can save data to a read-only CD, also cross-referenced to the primary hard copy laboratory notebook. When possible, scan images, save in pdf format and write to a read-only CD. Data should be date-time stamped. Including a table of contents on the CD, perhaps in the form of a Word or Excel document, provides an efficient method to determine what documents reside on the CD. Again, coordinate the hard copy laboratory notebook numbers with the read-only CDs, naming the CDs 20-CD A, 20-CD B, etc. or 20-CD 1, 20-CD-2, etc.
  • If a researcher is saving research data electronically, use a digital certificate to authenticate each electronic document, including email or digital research output. Digital certificates are available free of charge from DoIT. To obtain a digital certificate, follow the steps on or if you have questions regarding DoIT's Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), email [email protected]. As before, cross-reference all folders and electronic data with the appropriate hard copy laboratory notebooks.
  • Having the ability to locate electronic research files once saved is paramount. Give research projects names and sub-names, and use those names and dates when creating folders and saving e-documents. Each research lab should develop a standard naming convention for their folders and e-documents. Cross-reference each folder and e-document in the hard copy laboratory notebooks. Consider naming folders with the lab notebook number, as in the case of 3-ring binder supplements or CDs. When using dates in naming folders and electronic documents, always state the date back-to-front and use four digit years, two digit months and two digit days: YYYYMMDD or YYYYMM or YYYY or YYYY-YYYY. Use capital letters to differentiate between words, not spaces or underscores: MassSpec, not Mass Spec. Be consistent!
  • Since each UW–Madison department is responsible for their server backups, ask when your department or lab runs backups and enter that information in your hard copy laboratory notebook.
  • On a regular schedule, take "screen shots" of your folder and document hierarchies, and secure those documents in your hard copy laboratory notebook. This easy action can save countless hours when searching for elusive e-files.

Storing Laboratory Notebooks

When not in use, maintain notebooks in a central location, preferably in a fireproof safe or filing cabinet.

Notebooks should be numbered in a consecutive order or consecutively under each scientist's name.

Notebooks should be reproduced on microfilm or by other suitable means when complete and securely stored at a separate location.

A Few Words Regarding Electronic Records

See the Federal government's electronic record requirements at: 21 Code of Federal Regulations Part II: Electronic Records; Electronic Signatures.

If all data is maintained electronically, consider that electronic records must address inventorship, the date of creation, the content when it was created and the ability to be reproduced in human readable form. Most court cases don't occur until many years after the electronic record creation, so record management procedures are critical, addressing issues such as media storage and software maintenance.

Electronic laboratory notebooks face the same requirements as hard copy laboratory notebooks. Records must be sufficiently detailed and clear to allow "someone skilled in the art" to recreate the work and to conduct additional work without the direct assistance of the original researcher. Record what was done, why it was done, who suggested it, who did it, when it was done, what the results were (positive or negative) and what conclusions were drawn.