How to Turn a Lab Notebook into an Academic Manuscript
Writing a manuscript can be daunting - here are some tips for turning your research notes into a great manuscript.
Updated on November 1, 2019
If writing a manuscript seems like a daunting task, don't worry, you're not alone. How could you possibly turn that mountain of data into a 2-page communication? There are plenty of great experimentalists out there who struggle to effectively communicate their work. The good news is that you've already done the hard work; now all you need is a surefire strategy to let your lab notebook work for you.
Sections to Include in Your Lab Notebook
The first step in turning your lab notebook into a manuscript is learning how to maintain a lab notebook that will be conducive to paper writing. Keeping well-organized records and observations from the very beginning of an experiment will save you time and anguish in the long run. When you perform an experiment, there are several key factors that must be addressed in your lab notebook:
- Materials and methods (chemical reactions, analytical techniques, theoretical calculations, actual measurements, etc.)
- Experimental procedure
- Any observations
Even if you've performed the same experiment 100 times, write EVERYTHING down. If on that 100th attempt, your results are slightly different from all the others, you'll regret not recording that slight difference in temperature, color, or whatever might have caused the anomaly. Having too much information is always preferred over trying to fill in the gaps later on.
Remember, a lab notebook serves not just as a personal reference but also as a potential guide for other researchers. Ideally, a stranger to your work should be able to reproduce any of your experiments solely by following your lab notebook.
Results and Discussion Section
With your organized and comprehensive lab notebook in hand, it's time to start writing your manuscript. Believe it or not, you don't have to write a paper in the same order you would read it. In fact, the first sentence of a manuscript is often the hardest to write. Since the majority of scientific articles focus on the results and discussion, why not start there instead?
Choose the pieces of evidence from your lab notebook, including all of the data you have processed and analyzed, that best represent the results you wish to highlight in your paper. Examples may include chemical structures, characterization data, schematic diagrams, spectroscopic results, etc.
It is important to note here that you won't publish everything in your lab notebook. However, even failed experiments, negative data, or unintended consequences may be useful for further supporting your approach and findings in the results and discussion sections. In fact, negative results can often reveal just as much information as positive ones.
Figures and Tables
Next, create the various figures and tables that you plan to incorporate into the manuscript and place them in your blank document (or journal template) in the order you think they should appear. Keep in mind that this order does not necessarily have to follow the same order that the information was presented in your lab notebook.
At this point, your experimental data should resemble an outline of your manuscript without having written a single word. Now, simply tell the story of how you got from one figure to the next, connecting the dots for the reader.
During this stage, keep in mind several questions to address for each figure:
- What does the figure represent?
- How/why did you obtain the information in the figure?
- What significant conclusions can be made from the information provided?
- How do these conclusions support (or not support) the focus of your paper?
- How do these conclusions compare to those of previous works?
It is during this crucial step that the content of a lab notebook most drastically deviates from that of a manuscript. A lab notebook describes what you did and how you did it using a methodical, scientific approach, and a manuscript needs to interpret that information in a way that effectively conveys your main objective.
You, as the author, have full control over how you intend for your work to be received by the audience. There's no need to save the big reveal for the conclusion of your paper when all of the supporting data are here to back it up. This is your opportunity to tell the readers what key findings you want them to take away from the information presented and your chance to convince them of the significance of your work.
Organize the Sections of Your Manuscript
Now that the majority of your manuscript is written, it's time to tie it all together into a cohesive package. Although the ancillary sections of a manuscript (i.e., introduction, experimental section, conclusions, etc.) each serve their own unique function, the main purpose for their existence is to further bolster the case you've already set forth:
Materials and Methods
The experimental (or materials and methods) section of a manuscript should represent the most direct translation of your lab notebook. This section should provide all of the necessary tools for the reader to execute your experiments, which further emphasizes the importance of keeping a well-maintained lab notebook to enhance the accountability, accuracy, and reproducibility of your work.
Use the introduction to set the stage for the groundbreaking science showcased in the results and discussion. Consider what background information the reader needs to fully grasp and appreciate the implications of your work.
A strong conclusion, whether it's a closing paragraph or a section of its own, should summarize your major findings and how they relate to the ultimate objective of your research and any future work.
Lastly, if required, choose the most essential aspects from each section of your manuscript, including the key results and conclusions, to create a succinct abstract that grabs the reader's attention without getting overwhelmed with details.
Though there is no single formula for writing the perfect paper, this approach may be particularly effective for more experiment-minded researchers. Focus on the actual science and experimental data at the very core of your research and let them dictate the direction of your manuscript.
You don't have to be the greatest storyteller to get your point across; just let your lab notebook speak for itself, and the rest will fall into place.