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5.1: Basic practices and techniques, Laboratory notebooks, Presentation of data, Sections of a scientific report

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    There are two main concerns in a biochemical laboratory environment, they are:

    • Safety
    • Accurate record keeping


    A biochemical laboratory has safety concerns that include not only issues of chemical safety, but also issues of biohazard safety. In both cases, your safety depends upon a knowledge of the materials and procedures you are working with, as well as appropriate protective dress.

    Safety issues will be covered in detail in the syllabus, and in the lab by the lab director, however, a few key points will be covered here:

    1. Read the relevant chapter of the lab manual BEFORE arriving for the lab. To reinforce this practice, the labs will start with a short quiz related to the lab for that day. The quiz will start PROMPTLY at the beginning of class, will last approximately 10 minutes, and there will be NO MAKEUP QUIZZES for late arrivals. The beginning of lab time is used to organize the lab, and includes relevant safety information. Therefore, it is essential for all concerned that students show up promptly for the labs.

    2. Dress appropriately. No open toed shoes (i.e. sandals), shorts, or bare midriffs are permitted in a laboratory setting (OSHA guidelines). YOU WILL BE ASKED TO LEAVE IF YOU ARE NOT APPROPRIATELY DRESSED. Lab coat and goggle guidelines will be addressed by the lab manager.

    3. Lab attitude and behavior. Both safety and a successful learning experience are keenly associated with behavior and attitude. A cavalier attitude will result in accidents and experimental failures. Thinking about what you are doing, and asking questions, will result in success and a long life. One of the biggest problems in a laboratory setting is equipment damage due to a lack of knowledge about how to use such equipment. DO NOT USE ANY EQUIPMENT WITHOUT FIRST BEING INSTRUCTED ON HOW TO USE IT. Due to the expense of scientific equipment, labs can only function through the use of shared equipment, thus, everyone using such equipment needs to take care of it.

    Accurate Record Keeping

    There are typically two levels of record keeping for scientists involved in biochemical research:

    1. The laboratory notebook
    2. The research report

    It is important to understand the purpose of each type of record keeping, and to adhere to the practices associated with each one.

    The laboratory notebook

    The lab notebook can be thought of as your "working record" or "experimental log". It is a sort of formalized diary, and has a specific purpose and associated formalism with regard to how to use and maintain it.

    • For purposes of invention, discovery and patents, it is the primary record used to establish ownership of an invention and dates of discovery. To be useful for this legal process, certain guidelines must be followed.
    • For the purpose of the scientific process it provides the necessary detail so that experiments can be repeated and the results replicated and confirmed
    • For the purpose of reporting results, the lab notebook is the repository of all primary data and results

    To meet the above needs, the lab notebook is:

    · bound (no loose leaf) and

    · pages are numbered sequentially.

    · Futhermore, entries in the lab notebook are always made in ink (black or blue), never pencil. If something is written that is incorrect, it can be crossed out.

    In this way, an examiner of the notebook can determine whether the lab notebook is intact or whether pages or information have been removed.

    Entries into the notebook for a given experiment always begin with:

    · Writing the date

    · Stating the purpose of the experiment

    The remainder of the notebook section that covers the experiment will include any and all relevant information associated with the experiment, including:

    • A description of the materials, equipment and reagents used
    • A description of the methods used
    • Calculations used (a truly essential aspect of trying to repeat the experiment and identifying errors)
    • Tabulation of results collected
    • Conclusions, hypotheses, notes, etc.

    The key point is that you include enough information so that someone else can use your notebook to replicate the experiment and obtain the same results you did. In this regard, the notebook does not have to have perfect penmanship, but it must be legible and understandable by others. Diagrams are often essential. In industrial (and some academic) settings, it is a requirement that another person in the lab sign off on your notebook that they have read, and can understand, your notebook entry for a particular experiment (this is associated with the legal function of the notebook).

    The notebook must not contain any loose bits of paper. If an experiment includes a photograph or some type of printout from an instrument, this must be firmly affixed to the notebook (i.e. glued & stapled). Any loose paper can be lost, and with it, some key information. The best approach, if you have a data printout from an instrument, is to copy it by hand into your notebook. Sometimes this is not practical, so the data must be glued & stapled. It is also not a good idea to have information beneath such added items. In some industrial settings, the lab notebooks are Xeroxed for archival purposes. In this case, Xeroxing a page will miss information if it is written underneath a photo, etc.

    The first few pages of the lab notebook should be reserved for a table of contents. This is associated with the function of being able to replicate an experiment. Part of this requirement is the ability to locate a particular experiment in a given notebook. Researchers can generate dozens of notebooks involving hundreds of experiments, and a table of contents is essential. Furthermore, a researcher will often have two or more experiments on-going at one time. It is common for a notebook entry to start on one page and then reference a later page for continuation of the experiment (sort of like some magazine or newspaper articles). If appropriate, notebook pages should indicate both the referring page number, and the continuation page number.

    The research report

    The lab notebook is your working journal, and is not intended as a formal research report. The formal research report has specific sections and organization, and is a final, polished document relating to your research. These sections include the following (in specific order):

    • Title
    • Introduction
    • Materials and Methods
    • Results
    • Discussion
    • References

    In many cases, such reports also have an abstract (a short, ~250 word report that precedes the Introduction and details the essential aspects and results). However, this will not be required in your own reports.

    Each section of the report has a specific function:


    • Typically a single sentence that explains to the reader what the experiment is all about


    • One or more paragraphs that explain the purpose of the experiment, and provide any relevant background information so that the reader is prepared to follow the narrative of the report. In published research reports the introduction also lays out a logical argument as to the importance of the experiment

    Materials and Methods

    • A detailed "recipe", describing instrumentation, materials and supplies, and procedures used in performing the experiment. The "M&M" section is detailed enough so that the experiment can be repeated and the results confirmed by others. An essential aspect of the scientific method is that results are meaningless unless they can be confirmed by others.


    • Statements of fact regarding the data collected, with associated errors or deviations (e.g. all relevant values and/or numbers relating to your data). This is often represented using tables, and sometimes, figures.


    • An interpretation of the results, and a discussion of its meaning, including a discussion of error (where relevant). In published research reports, the discussion will also put the work in the context of other published work in the same field.


    • If you used any texts, primary literature, or web sites in preparing your experiment or report, these should be referenced. There are a variety of formats, but the reference generally includes author, title, volume, pages and year (also publisher, if it is a text). For web sites, author and URL. A key aspect is to avoid plagiarism.

    An addition to having the above sections, all research reports have a required format. The format of a report includes details of:

    • Type of font, line spacing, page breaks, margins, etc.
    • Page length and/or word number requirements
    • Limitations on number of tables, figures, use of color, etc.
    • Title page format
    • Formatting of references

    This course is no different, and there is a required format for research reports, and these can be found in the syllabus.

    Common mistakes in writing the research report

    Although it may seem straightforward, writing an effective research report can take years of practice. There a several aspects that can prove difficult. Here are a few things to consider:

    • Do not put Results into the Materials and Methods section. The M&M section may have equations, but will not have any data listed.
    • Do not put comments associated with the Discussion section into the Results section. Sometimes it is difficult to know what goes where, but here is a general guideline: information in the Results section can be thought of as statements of fact (i.e. your data), whereas, interpretation and hypotheses are part of the Discussion section. Someone might argue with your ideas in the Discussion section, but there should be no argument about information in the Results section.
    • Error associated with your data is presented in the Results section as well. Do not get hung up on semantics. A "discussion of error" goes into the Results section.
    • Do not duplicate statements or paragraphs in different sections. If you have said something in the Introduction, do not repeat it in the Results or Discussion section.
    • Do not duplicate data. If you present data in a table, do not also present it as a figure. However, having said this, it is important to recognize that, even with scientists, people can often grasp meaning easier with a figure as opposed to looking at numbers in a table. Often, selected data is extracted and compared using an appropriate figure.
    • YOU MUST FOLLOW THE FORMATTING GUIDELINES FOR THE RESEARCH REPORT. In the "real world" failure to follow such guidelines will result in immediate rejection of the report.

    An example of a research report is given here.

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