Laboratory notebooks

My early experience

When I started working as an internship student at Embrapa Algodão, back on the year 2002, I couldn’t imagine how things would turn to be in the future. I remember having a hardbound notebook that I would carry everywhere with me to take field notes and jot down ideas. The reason I kept that notebook was my natural instinct, nobody ever told me how important it is for a scientist to keep an accurate record of the research you do.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine that notebook, I don’t even keep, was my first laboratory notebook. When I look back now, the only record I keep from those years are on the articles we wrote and published. All those thoughts, notes and ideas are all gone now. Nobody remember them, not even me!

My very first electronic laboratory notebook

On the year 2008 I started working on my master’s thesis on the University of Granada. When I joined the group I started learning many things so fast and there was no strict rule about how to keep a laboratory notebook. I used to write things down on a piece of paper or a notebook and later transcribe that information on a OneNote notebook. I remember thinking to myself that there must be a “proper way” of doing this and I decided that those pieces of paper or my field notebook wouldn’t be enough.

What I loved the most of the OneNote system was the endless possibilities. I could use a “ctrl+f” to find anything, I could use custom tags to mark important pieces of information throughout the notebook and find them on the “tag serch”. I also started searching internet and reading online articles on blogs and other webpages to learn how important is and, even most importantly, how to properly keep a laboratory notebook.

I started my first digital notebook that year1. Since then, how my “digital laboratory notebook” looks like changed every year. At the end of every course I would print a pdf version of the notebook and start another one. I ditched what didn’t work for me and tried to implement new things every year.

I also tried several methods to keep a laboratory notebook from OneNote, paper, LaTeX, plain text, Evernote, WordPress to Findings App and then returned again to OneNote.

OneNote for Mac and the day I met Markdown and Pandoc

Recently, when I thought that I was mastering the OneNote program and would settle for a while with this system, I shifted from my “old” Asus to a brand new Macbook Pro. On the new Mac I started using the OneNote app for Mac, and I have to say that the MacOS version is not half as good as the Windows version. Sadly, it seems that maybe we will have to wait several years to have “custom tags” on it or to be able to fit the width of the page on a A4 when converting it to pdf.

One of the reasons I returned to my OneNote system, this time, is because when I started to supervise master’s students it seemed the easiest way to teach them how to properly do their laboratory notebooks. Now the app is free and I will, probably, keep teaching my new students how to build their laboratory notebook with OneNote.

For my own research notes, this system doesn’t suit my needs anymore. It is very powerful but have some disadvantages that made me keep looking for a more “professional” workflow. I think that this information should be kept on a simple system such as plain text. That would allow me to explore the power of version control with git, and render a proper Latex-like pdf to share with others. I recently started to learn and use markdown to write my research notes and pandoc to convert them.

On the future I will write other posts with my impressions.

  1. Farias, Virgínea (2017): Laboratory notebooks 2008-2012. figshare.
    https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.5328295.v2
    Retrieved: 15:27, Aug 21, 2017 (GMT)