Keeping a laboratory notebook

The following is intended as a general guide on how to keep a notebook. If you need to know the reasons behind this move across the scientific world then read this page. A well written and maintained laboratory notebook is an excellent starting point for the patent attorney when the time comes to prepare and file a patent application.

The record book

First of all, it is important to use a record book that has a permanent binding. Loose-leaf, spiral-bound or other temporarily bound books allow for page removal, insertions and substitutions.

The pages of the notebook should also be numbered. Such a system helps to reduce the possibility of any successful challenge to the validity of the notebook entry.

The keeping of laboratory notebooks entirely electronically is probably not advisable, since computer records and the date of entry are easily alterable, although there are now proprietary recording systems that claim to be secure in this respect. A backup hard copy notebook documenting the important steps and discoveries and properly dated and witnessed will protect you in the event that inventorship is challenged..

Paper quality

The permanence of the records is a prime consideration and it is therefore important that the paper can stand the tests of time. Good quality paper should last at least 30 years.

Ink quality

When recording experiments, do not use pencil or strange-coloured inks. Ensure that the ink is permanent, not water or solvent reactive, and does not smear. It should also be light stable.

Entries

The entries in the book should be legible and factually complete.

For all inventions, but perhaps especially for chemical and biotechnological cases, it is important to describe in as full detail as possible all experimental procedures, giving all conditions of experiment and all apparatus, sketched if necessary.

In mechanical/electrical cases, full details of apparatus must be given (including circuits etc).

Drawings may be very important, so if in doubt include them. As a general guideline, there should be enough information in the book to enable someone working in the field to duplicate the work.

Results and observations

Record carefully all results and note all observations. In the chemical area, the notebook should include references to all analytical data obtained and details of any calculations performed.

Any graphs, drawings or other loose sheets should be carefully affixed to the book by some permanent method (eg staples or pins) and reference made to them and their contents.

Any data added subsequent to the original data, for example results of analysis, should be entered on a separate page with reference to the original entry.

Never leave a page incomplete. Draw lines through unused pages or parts of pages.

Facts not opinions

Record also all novel concepts and ideas relating to the work. Preferably do not express opinions in notebooks. This could lead to misinterpretation. The book should be limited to factual, quantitative and qualitative results.

Statements like "the experiment failed", "the idea is obvious", "I think it is unpatentable", "perhaps would infringe patent X" should be avoided.

Do not use slang, abbreviations and too-technical jargon. The notebook must be understandable to others, not only patent attorneys, but judges, jurors and potential licensees.

Supporting information

Addition to the notebook of support records (eg photographs) should not be haphazard. If support records cannot be added to the notebook itself, then reference to them should be consistent and they should be stored in an orderly, readily retrievable manner.

Signing off

Ensure that each page is signed and dated by the author and witnessed as soon as possible. Do not leave any pages undated, unsigned or unwitnessed.

Errors

Errors and mistakes should not be erased or obliterated beyond recognition. Neither should liquid paper be used. Simply crossing out an error so that it is apparent what the error was should be adequate. Explain all errors and mistakes as they occur and initial them. Never remove pages from the notebook.

Safe keeping

The notebook should be regarded as a legal document. As such it should be treated in a controlled manner. When completed, it should be stored in a safe place. It should not be treated as a freely available publication.

All of these points are general hints and guidelines. As a final point: a well written and maintained laboratory notebook is an excellent starting point for the patent attorney when the time comes to prepare and file a patent application.

'Algol' by Harry Mercer (1968) outside of Goodricke College, Heslington East

Further reading

For anyone interested in further discussion on laboratory notebooks, there is a book by Howard M Kanare devoted to this subject. The book is published by the American Chemical Society, Washington DC and is entitled "Writing the Laboratory Notebook".

Funding, grants and contracts

Who to contact

Matthew Just
Intellectual Property and Legal Manager
Matthew.Just@york.ac.uk
ext. 8674

Michael Barber
Contracts and Sponsorship Manager
Michael.Barber@york.ac.uk
ext. 8693