Which lab book are you?

Everyone “knows” the importance of lab book keeping. Everyone, but only a few actually realise the implications. If you are a new scientist you “know” the importance, well, simply because you were told as. And you actually try to keep a good lab book so you can have your supervisor off your back or, even more importantly, because you get credits out of it. If you are an experienced scientist, then you probably felt the implications of good lab book keeping, but hey, you are too busy now to put down every single detail, let alone the fact that you already know all your protocols by heart and you remember whenever you make some slight changes. Da Vinci was so good that we can actually build all the “contraptions” he designed half a century ago.

Figure 1: Da Vinci knew the importance of good note keeping. Do you?

Let’s take a test. Pick your lab book, look through the pages and give it a mark. Quick, don’t overthink it. I can guarantee you that however you marked it, the score should be actually lower. How can I be that sure? Then answer to yourself with a simple yes or no to the following questions.

2Do you have the date in each and every page of your lab book?

Are all the pages numbered?

Do you have a table of contents, or at least left the first few pages purposefully empty?

3Do you start each new experiment on the right page?

If you do a mistake how do you cross it out? (hint: mistakes should be readable)

Do you have blank pages? (Another hint: you shouldn’t, every white space should be crossed out).

And if we want to take it a step further, have you had someone else sign every completed entry? Do you sign over your corrections?

More importantly, can you or someone else of relevant background come back after 6 months, make sense and repeat the experiments while obtaining the same results? (duh!!!)

As the U.S. patent law states

Inventorship is determined by the “first to invent”, not the “first to file”.

Figure 2: Table of Contents, yes you need one.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how good you are with a lab book. Its nature alone has some fundamental issues that prevent it for being good enough. Dr Nick Morris successfully summarises what is inherently wrong with lab books (even if it’s not your fault). Here is small preview but make sure you check his article to fully understand the rationale behind the next 7 bullet points.

  1. They are not searchable
  2. They may be portable, but they are not ‘shareable’
  3. They are ethically unsound
  4. They are prone to errors
  5. They can’t be backed-up
  6. They can’t be standardised
  7. They are a source of potential contamination

I’ll let you on a secret, I am terrible on keeping a lab book. My handwriting is that of a 6-year old, I am over confident in the way that I wait to see a significant result before I record the changes that led to it and I answer negatively most of the previous questions. It is like trying to read Aristotle and make sense with the first read-through, not going to happen.

Figure 3: DId you know what we consider today Aristotle’s work is actually his lecture notes? (That’s why is so damn hard to make sense of them)

So? Does that makes us bad scientists? I would like to say NO. We are bad scientists only as long as we do not try to improve upon our deficiencies.

It is the 21st century people, all the information around us is in digital format. We read in digital, we listen in digital, watch in digital. Then why don’t we keep notes in digital as well? Most of the times a today’s lab book is just printed data, protocols and results from a PC (or Mac, really?) and pasted into the lab book. So let’s move. E-books are the solution.

There are so many of them out there, you just have to pick which one you prefer to use. A lot of them are free for users (and some of them for small groups) and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. You can even find one perfect for CRISPR if you are into gene modification. Most of the time a couple of minutes of previewing are enough to make up your mind. So here is a list for you to try. Go ahead 🙂



  • Very user-friendly and quick to set up
  • Unique experimental workflow
  • Open source license (MPL)
  • Free account with unlimited project users


  • Drawing molecules still in development




  • Very user friendly and quick to set up
  • Useful DNA tools (CRISPR guide and primer design)
  • Templates for sequence mapping and sharing
  • Free account with 10 GB of storage space


  • Free account is tied to a single user
  • Report structure is not flexible




  • Possible archive management, built-in metrics and analytics
  • Can connect to the eCAT sample tracking system
  • Supports chemical structures
  • Free to use


  • No local installation
  • Not open source




  • Sketching
  • Free account for smaller teams and free mobile app
  • Integration with Mendeley


  • Not very intuitive
  • Unflattering structured design
  • Free version is limited up to 3 team members




  • Pubmed references entry editor
  • Interface with GraphPad Prism


  • Graphical User Interface needs to be improved
  • Quite complicated, extra training necessary
  • Very low amount of  storage space in free package makes it unsuitable for most users
  • Not Open Source




  • Easy to use with useful tips
  • Free account


  • Not possible to write comments
  • Not compatible with mobile devices
  • Local installation is not possible




  • Advanced tagging system for easy search
  • Track recording from batch number to concentration


  • Not very intuitive
  • Project view too complex
  • No free license available
  • Expensive monthly subscription




  • Plate designer
  • Free account with 10 GB of storage space


  • Creating protocols is very rigid
  • No possibility to create tables
  • Free account is tied to ten users
  • Works only on iOS


  1. MBOOK 


  • Supports all operating systems and browsers
  • Can be used in different fields of science


  • No free account
  • No local installation
  • Not very intuitive interface

Happy note keeping 🙂


Thanos Papadimitropoulos, BSc, MSc | Eye and Vision Science | Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease
University of Liverpool | Room 108.8 | The William Duncan Building |6 West Derby Street | Liverpool | L69 3BX


  1. Nice summary! However, I would disagree with the comment that “a couple of minutes of previewing are enough”.

    There are lots of really important considerations, especially when using a commercial option (nice example courtesy of Evernote last year: http://web.archive.org/web/20170926145401/https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/12/evernotes-new-privacy-policy-raises-eyebrows/ regarding, for example, who has access to your data, and how they can hold it to ransom via Ts&Cs).

    You may find this post about wordpress as a research ELN interesting:


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