Moving Away From the Traditional Lab-Book

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By: Ioannis Smyrnias

What is the problem?

A significant, but usually underestimated, difficulty for a researcher is to reproduce someone else’s experimental results. Apart from the usual hurdles in doing so, namely including different conditions and equipment available in labs, as well as varying levels of technical expertise, collecting information on how an experiment was performed from hand-written notes in a lab notebook can be very challenging. Moreover, a very common phrase you hear in a research lab involves variations of ‘I have to update my lab-book, I’m already a few months behind’, encapsulating how critical details are never noted down. After all, who can accurately remember how or what exactly they did two and a half months ago?  

There are, however, meticulous researchers too, who regularly update their lab books and hand-write all the significant details that lead to a successful experiment. However, the problem still remains. Illegible hand-writing, multiple notebooks that span years of lab work, analogue notes that cannot be searched, and most importantly, notes sorted by date and not by experimental procedures are the main reasons why, in my opinion, the traditional lab notebooks are not a good enough practice, especially when you consider the tools available to move to a digital solution.  

Day One app

Over a year ago, I decided to start using a Mac and iOS app called Day One by Bloom Built, LLC in an effort to improve my record keeping. It is a simple journaling app, which I have incorporated into my daily workflow to maintain a more manageable and versatile digital lab-book. You can find Day One in the Mac and iOS App Store. At first glance, Day One seems to simply allow you to keep a date-based record of your work. But, on closer inspection, its tagging, search, and sync functions make particularly well suited to lab work.  

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First, you can add multiple tags to each of your entries, allowing for better organisation (e.g. ‘H9C2 Cells’ and ‘Experiment X’ or ‘HEK293 Cells’ and ‘Experiment X’ to describe the same experiment performed in two different cell types). In the time I’ve been using the app, I’ve created a number of tags, each one applicable to a particular experiment. Each entry may contain several tags, which describe every bit performed on a particular day that brought an individual experiment closer to completion. As a result, I have records of my lab work categorised not only by date, but, most importantly, by each individual experiment irrespectively of how much time was required from conception to completion. Furthermore, in addition to tagging an entry, you can also attach a photo to each entry. I use my iPhone’s camera to quickly capture snapshots of hand-written notes in the lab (e.g. calculations, short reminders and generally everything that happens when I’m doing an experiment), which I then attach to that day’s entry.  A slightly annoying limitation of the app is that it only allows you to attach one photo per entry. An easy workaround is to create a collage that contains all the photos you need to append to your entry, using an app like Diptic.  

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Second, all your entries and tags (experiments) are searchable. Let’s say you want to find at what concentration you applied to a reagent in a particular experiment a few months ago. Or was it a year ago? With traditional lab notebooks, finding that information would involve manually flipping over tens of pages in several notebooks and scanning through hand-written notes, hoping your eyes catch the required information. With Day One though (or any other journalling app that works in a similar way), you can quickly search for the required information and in most cases it will be available within seconds.  

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Finally, entries in the Mac and iOS versions of Day One are synced via iCloud or Dropbox. So, you create a quick note on your iPhone or iPad and within seconds you can pick it up on your Mac. The beauty of this is better demonstrated when an experiment is completed on a lab computer and computer-based data are involved. You finish an experiment on a lab computer and at the same time you make notes using your iPhone in Day One. When it’s time to move that data on your Mac, you pick up the entry created on your iPhone using the OS X version of the app. There, you can also update the entry with the path of the folder that contains the data, so it’s quickly accessible via your Mac’s services by right-clicking on the folder path and opening it in Finder.  


These few paragraphs very briefly describe how I use Day One to maintain a digital lab book. As you might have guessed, it’s been working very well for me in the last year, mainly due to its tagging and searching abilities. It is surprisingly flexible and each user is able to adjust it to their own needs, making it an overall excellent and significantly better alternative to the traditional lab-book.

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