Keeping inadequate notes of the research process

From The Embassy of Good Science

Keeping inadequate notes of the research process

What is this about?

Adequate documentation or ‘note taking’ of the research process is essential for transparent and trustworthy results. Indeed, keeping inadequate notes of the research process is considered a questionable research practice .[1]  Inadequate note keeping can lead to ideas or information being forgotten, mistakes in reporting, an inadequate description of the context in which the data were generated, and difficulties for replication of findings. Different disciplines, research institutions, and research teams have different procedures for note taking, e.g. in a notebook or electronically, and different conceptions of what a ‘note’ consists of. In general, note taking serves as a ‘second memory’ in the research process and promotes the quality and transparency of the performed research.

Why is this important?

Researchers have a responsibility to keep notes, or up-to-date laboratory journals, of their research process. Between different disciplines, the content and structure of notes may differ. In addition, new ideas should be written down as comprehensively as possible and dated. This ensures researchers are given appropriate credit within a research team for generating ideas. [1]


For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Laboratory notes

When performing experiments, researchers should carefully and comprehensively report their experimental design, materials and techniques used, and all of their outcomes. Here, reproducibility and transparency are paramount. This is important within the biomedical sciences, physics, chemistry, computer science, etc. Laboratory notebooks are important to use when performing experiments of any kind.


The ten rules, as adapted below, can help in organizing and providing complete information in your notebook.[1]

  1. Learn your institution’s or laboratory’s notebook policy or create one in your research team
  2. Select the right medium for your lab notebook either electronically or a hardcopy.
  3. Make the habit of keeping the lab notebook in your desk to keep your notebook at hand while working.
  4. Record all scientific activities in your lab notebook including thoughts during meeting, theorizing about problems etc.
  5. Every entry should be recorded with a date, subject and protocol to organize your lab journal or notebook.
  6. Keep a record of how every result was produced to ensure reproducibility of your experiments.
  7. Keep an overview of the different study protocols you use including adaptations from standard (laboratory) protocols
  8. Keep a lab notebook that can serve as a legal record of your work to ensure you can take ownership of ideas, show you deserve authorship or protect intellectual property rights.
  9. Create a table of contents in your lab notebook to eEnsure your notebook is organized and easily searchable.
  10. Protect your lab notebook. Your lab notebook belongs to your institution since you are funded through your institution. “Your lab notebook is part of the scientific legacy of your laboratory. Therefore, you need to protect your lab notebook."[1]


Fieldnotes

For qualitative researchers it is important to record: 1) descriptive information related to the data generation; and 2) to reflect on the process of data generation and interpretation. Both types of notes help in the interpretation and contextualization of findings.  Descriptive information should focus on observations related to the research problem. For the reflective content, the importance of note taking is to place into observations in the perspective of the researcher’s “personal, cultural and situational experiences”. Here, a critical attitude is important, with notes focusing on initial impressions, assumptions, concerns, and surprises. [2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Schnell, S. (2015). Ten simple rules for a computational biologist’s laboratory notebook. PLoS computational biology, 11(9).
  2. Libguides : https://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/fieldnotes

Other information

Virtues & Values
Good Practices & Misconduct