Keeping Electronic Research Notebooks: Principles and Pointers

I hope you are already aware of the importance of keeping a research notebook as you pursue your research, to record your results and thoughts. Given that, the goal of this post is to make you aware of some of the possibilities for maintaining your research notebooks in digital format. Note: I won’t be talking about any specific hardware devices; this is about note-taking software solutions that you could use on any computer or tablet.

First of all, I’m not trying to claim that electronic notebooks are superior to paper notebooks for everybody and for all disciplines. My perspective is obviously colored by my own Computer Science background. Most of what I say in this post is geared toward research notes that are primarily textual, as opposed to pictures or diagrams. Though many note-taking apps do have good support for images, diagrams, and equations, especially if you are using a tablet and pen for input, sometimes there is just no substitute for being able to sketch a diagram with a pencil or scribble in the margins. That said, I do have some scientist friends who are very productive with using a tablet to take free-form notes that include text, pictures, diagrams, arrows, etc. But I feel like it requires quite a lot of practice to get to the point where that feels as natural as using paper. As I said, I’m focusing on the case where your notes are mostly text.

Given those caveats, the big advantage of electronic note-taking is that you can organize, re-organize, filter, search and summarize your notes in ways that you simply can’t with a paper notebook, hopefully making you a more productive researcher, and maybe even allow you to find insightful connections that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

So how can one start to use an electronic notebook? Don’t underestimate the power of the most basic possible approach, which is just keeping a bunch of plain text files in a folder on your computer. Some of you may be surprised to hear that coming from a computer scientist; maybe you were expecting me to recommend some advanced new software. But often the simplest solution is the best, at least as a starting point.

The advantage of the “folder-of-text-files” approach is that there is a zero learning curve; you can start with a text editor that you already know how to use, and the hard drive’s files and folders provide a ready-made filing system. You can copy and paste text to reorganize your notes, and your operating system’s built-in search feature will give you the pretty good capability to search for specific text within your notes. Also, you can copy the entire folder to different machines, and you’ll be able to access and edit your notes from any computer and operating system. Of course, some people may prefer to use Microsoft Word documents instead of plain text files, but I can’t recommend that and still keep my hacker street cred. 😉

For organization, you can use a basic scheme of one folder per project, and one document per topic or phase of the project, naming the file after the topic or category. If your text editor uses tabs (Notepad++ and TextMate both do this), you can keep multiple text files open and easily switch between the tabs. However, one’s thoughts while doing research don’t always pop up with convenient topical labels attached to them. The important thing in research notebook-keeping, as you may have been told, is to write your thoughts and observations down as soon as they come, so you don’t lose any vital insights or pieces of evidence. And often, at the beginning, we don’t even know yet what the best scheme for organizing our results will be.

So, although I do think it’s a good idea to have some topical organization scheme for your e-notebook, you shouldn’t sweat over making everything perfectly organized from the moment you write it down. One strategy is to keep one text file open as a default page to put new notes in as they come to you, without worrying about how they should be organized. One of the best ways to help yourself is to add a date stamp to each new item that you jot down, in a format that’s quick and easy for you to insert, just as you would with a paper notebook. You can also leave a blank line or two between each entry to help readability. Then, at the end of each day, you can go back and sort your notes into categories for easier reference in the future. Again, the nice thing about an electronic notebook is that cutting and pasting is easy.

You may also want to insert new entries at the top of a notes file, instead of at the bottom. This way you won’t have to scroll down to find the place to insert a new note, and when you open your notes file, you’ll be looking at your most recent notes first, which is usually what you want. And your notes will be in chronological order from newest to oldest by default.

Of course, this system isn’t perfect. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, the text notes we have written become hopelessly disorganized. The text file for a given topic may become too long to manage. Or, you may leave one area of your research for a couple of weeks, and when you go back to it and open up your notes, all you see is an incomprehensible wall of text that you can’t make heads or tails of. Of course, that happens with paper notebooks too.

After a while, you may want to move on to some dedicated note-taking software such as Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, or Notability. But everything you learn from the plain-text approach can be carried over to these programs. No software can completely eliminate the need for good notebook-keeping discipline, and in my experience, this comes only with time and practice. If you get good enough with the plain-text-files approach, you may even be content to stick with that. The advantage of plain text note-taking is that you are in full control of the format of your data, and it can be read on any device.

Finally, if you do want to investigate some more advanced electronic notebook solutions, take a look at this article “The Electronic Lab Notebook in 2020: A Comprehensive Guide” at https://www.labfolder.com/electronic-lab-notebook-eln-research-guide/ .

Happy notebook-keeping!

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