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Laboratory notes: sticking to the basics.

In physicist C.P. Snow's 1934 novel The Search, the young chemist Arthur Miles sees in one of this x-ray crystallographs an anomaly fatal to his hypothetical model of "the structure of the organic group." In this painful moment, Miles is tempted to deny the anomalous finding. What if he had not taken that particular photograph? Without it, the evidence supporting his hypothesis was overwhelming. Should he destroy it? Even when the error should finally be discovered, long after his paper was published and his reputation made, wouldn't it be viewed as an honest mistake? Courageously, and in keeping the highest standards of scientific ethics, Miles makes the following notebook entry:

Mar. 30: Photograph 3 alone has secondary dots, concentric with major dots. This removes all possibility of the hypothesis of structure B. The interpretation from Mar. 4-30 must accordingly be disregarded.

Miles' entry is, of course, a victory for science, a stand against the fraud that sometimes creeps into science--like the failure to note "inconvenient" facts. I begin with this fictional scenario as a way of affirming and illustrating that "good" laboratory notes--notes that are unbiased, complete, accurate, thoughtful, and readable--arguably are a scientist's most important tool. Most scientific reports are ultimately summaries of experiments and experimental records. Thus, clear and comprehensive notes of actions, observations, and thoughts are crucial and minimize reliance on memory. (Excellent coverage of sound notekeeping can be found in H.M. Kalare's 1985 Writing the Laboratory Notebook and Hans Ebel et al.'s 1990 The Art of Scientific Writing.)

Permanence and legality

To begin with, the most acceptable place to record experimental observations is in a permanent notebook, the pages of which are firmly bound, numbered, and dated; loose sheets are inappropriate, even if collected in a binder, since they lack both permanence and a verifiable sequence. (The need for permanence also requires that notes be written in ink, preferably wet-proof.) An intact, paginated, and dated notebook is especially important if the notes are ever needed as legal evidence (e.g., associated with patent matters). In this regard, it is not uncommon for industrial laboratories to require that notebook pages be signed and important records witnessed. A company may provide researchers with special notebooks with preformatted pages; there may also be accompanying instructions forbidding the leaving of blank pages, in order to prevent legal questions regarding chronology and documented authenticity of recorded observations.

What a notebook should contain

To be meaningful, the content of notebook records must be provided with the appropriate context. Thus, the introduction to each experimental write-up should include the following preliminary information:

* a title and an identification number

* the date, time, and (if not self-evident) place of recorded events

* a statement of the experimenter's precise goal

* annotated citations of relevant background literature

The introductory notes should also contain basic information about all materials used as well as about the experimental conditions. Examples of such basic information are:

* the balanced equation for any chemical reaction involved

* molecular weights and physical properties of relevant chemicals (e.g., melting points, solubilities, toxicities)

* important instrumental parameters and measurement conditions

* sketches of unusual or unfamiliar apparatus

* significant external factors (e.g., laboratory temperature and pressure)

* supplier and grade of commercial and non-commercial substances

* techniques used to purify or test starting materials and reagents

It will also be useful here to outline the experimental procedure one proposes to follow. However, this outline must never substitute for a description of what actually was done and observed, which is the subject of the next part of the notes.

This basic contextual information is followed by a complete, self-contained narrative of the experiment proper. To avoid confusion between fact and wishful thinking, this running account must always clearly distinguish actual actions and observations from speculations and intentions (which belong in the introductory notes). Simple devices for maintaining clarity include the use of subheadings or dividing lines and careful, consistent use of tense. Thus, while introductory notes may contain phrasing like "The purpose of this experiment is..." or "This should then...," the narrative should take the form "I took..." or "I added dropwise..."

The narrative should also note such actions or observations as deviations from routine procedure (even if slight) and any unexpected phenomena. Seemingly trivial details may turn out to be among the most important facets of an experiment. The key to a crucial insight might turn, for instance, on recollecting an odd color change on extracting an ethereal solution with aqueous alkali, finding a notation of a spur-of-the-moment decision to use sodium sulfate as a drying agent instead of magnesium sulfate, or being able to review a spectrum of supposedly useless distillation residue.

Two major differences between the description of an experiment in a notebook and that in a report is a degree of detail and how the data are presented. Notes should always contain every measurement taken (e.g., weighings, buret readings, absorption intensities), accompanied by the calculations used to convert raw data into derived data (e.g., concentrations deduced from titrations, yields). While only the derived data normally appear in a report, raw data must be scrupulously preserved. If at a later time logical fallacies become apparent, the original measurements will be needed for re-calculations. It is not uncommon, for instance, to discover that an instrument has given false information, but that the results are still interpretable by subjecting the original data to a correction factor.

Organizing your notes

Since it is inevitable that many individual experiments will ultimately be interrelated, you should devise some system for notebook cross-referencing. One effective device is a system of experiment numbers, each corresponding to the number of the page on which the given experiment begins. It is useful to precede this number with your initials, especially if you are a part of a research team. The notebook itself should have a volume number (preferably in Roman numerals, to distinguish from the Arabic page numbers). Thus, a particular experiment might be designed RCG-III-96.

Using this scheme, one could even refer to individual substances or fractions. For instance, chromatography fraction 5 from experiment RCG-III-96 might be called RCG-III-96-5, so long as all coded items are carefully identified in your notebook. Such codes will also be convenient for other purposes, such as labelling vials or spectra. They combine brevity with a minimal risk of confusion. Finally, since notebook entries must be readily accessible not just to the researcher but to others who may need to refer to them, you should leave space at the beginning of each notebook for a current table of contents.

Ideally, then, the high degree of clarity and detail in your notes--coupled with how you organize them--should facilitate their eventual "translation" into the experimental section of a research report. While often the most memorable parts of research reports are their theoretical arguments or speculative conclusions, it is the experimental evidence that forms their basis. One can write a meaningful account of an experiment only from a good set of records--i.e., on-the-spot, clear, detailed, comprehensive, and thoughtful descriptions, together with items like original spectra and computer printouts.

Preserving notes

In closing, as evident as it might seem, it should be emphasized that the importance of laboratory notes is such that no research notebook should ever be discarded. Scientists departing from research groups will normally be required to leave their notebooks behind for co-workers' access to experimental details available nowhere else. Also, since the departing researcher will also want future access, it is wise to keep and assemble in a looseleaf binder personal carbon (or photo) copies of all notebook entries (although industrial scientists will usually not be permitted to do this). In sum, the ultimate usefulness, accessibility, and even the "truth-value" of your laboratory notes will depend on the trouble you take to stick to record-keeping basics.

Robert Goldbort, Ph.D., Asst. Professor, Indiana State University Department of English, Terre Haute, IN 47809.
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Title Annotation:Technical Writer
Author:Goldbort, Robert
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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