A screen grab of OneNote demonstrating some of the features most useful for lab notebooks, including searching within images.

A screen grab of OneNote demonstrating some of the features most useful for lab notebooks, including searching within images.

Over the past few months, I’ve presented two sessions describing the use of Microsoft OneNote as an electronic lab notebook at Harvard. As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, there are lots of options for digital lab notebooks, and all come with the enormous benefits of a searchable record of your work that makes sense in a world where all our data are now digital. While lots of companies offer a more specialized lab notebook software, I know at least one person who isn’t able to use their notes because the startup company producing the software went under. At the same time, the more specialized software often makes assumptions about what kind of information you want to record, which I find cumbersome and limiting. For these reasons, as well as many others, Microsoft OneNote has served me well for the two and half years I’ve been using it, and since it’s now available for Mac (download it for free here) most scientists will now be able to take advantage of it. Here are the most useful tips and tricks I’ve learned to make using the software as convenient as possible in a laboratory setting.


  1. Cut and paste quickly. In addition to using Windows’ built in “snipping tool” to copy an image of a small region of your screen to the clipboard, OneNote has some additional handy features for bringing in data and images. For instance, copying and pasting text from websites in OneNote automatically includes a hyperlink to the source below the text. And of course, the Microsoft products all play nicely with one another. For example, you can easily cut and paste data to or from Excel and the data will stay in table format.
  2. Use docked windows. Found under the “View” menu, this feature allows you to create a window that will stay on top of other applications. If you’re looking at another Word, OneNote, PowerPoint, or (gasp) Internet Explorer window, the “linked notes” feature will automatically add a small button that links back to whatever document you were viewing when you made the notes.
  3. Search anywhere—even in images. You can right click on any image and select “Make text searchable.” From then on, when you search for text, the image will show up in the results. Great for methods sections of scanned papers from the 1940s.
  4. Collaborate on Notebooks. OneNote allows you to share notebooks, and can highlight, annotate, and date stamp each contribution so you can keep everything straight. The sharing process is not always obvious, but it’s easy once you learn how (here’s a primer). The notebooks can also be viewed through your web browser so no software download is necessary.
  5. Calculate in-line. In college, my advisor used to give undergraduates who wanted to work in his lab an arithmetic quiz to make sure they would be able to make buffers. Now, thanks to OneNote, we can reach new lows of mathematical illiteracy. You simply type a formula (like 0.15*0.0764=) and the result will auto-complete after you hit the “=” key.
  6. Make tables automatically. Along similar lines, just hit the Tab button to turn what you’ve just typed into the first cell of a table. Delineate further columns with Tab, and just press Enter to start filling in the next line.
  7. Generate to-do lists. There’s a button on the home menu that allows you to add a check box at the start of your current paragraph. The best part is that you can then search for all the to-do tags across multiple notebooks and tick off the ones you’ve completed (just by clicking on the tick box) right in the search window—creating an automatically generated to-do list.
  8. Organize with multiple notebooks and custom tags. I have a notebook for talk notes, one for cloning, and one for other experiments. Within the last, I have one section for each project and a separate page for each experiment I start. In addition to inserting links to pages (right click on the page title and select “copy link…”) to cross-reference everything, you can also make a custom tag if you want to find themes across all your notebooks. Find this option at the bottom of the list of tags in the Home menu—you can set the icon and font color, and also change the hotkey used to add it to your document (by default, Ctrl+1). From then on, you can quickly locate all the places the tag is used with the “Find Tags” feature.
  9. Create your own quick access buttons—like a timestamp tool. I frequently find myself wanting to note the time that I start an incubation. I added the Insert/Time button to the quick access toolbar (to do this, just right click on any interface feature and select Add to Quick Access Toolbar) and use it probably a dozen times a day.
  10. Huge storage. My department has a great file server, so whenever I’m referencing data in my notebook, I just copy the file path as text, sometimes with a screen clipping to help me recognize what I’m looking for. But if you need to figure out your own storage solution, OneDrive may be a good option for you. The storage capacity for the subscription service (which you might get for free from your institution) is 1TB, but plans to make it unlimited have been announced.
  11. Periodically archive your notebook yourself—OneNote’s history feature is limited. Our beloved Responsible Conduct of Research classes taught us that all additions to a lab notebook should be clearly dated. Sadly, this requirement is probably the only significant area where OneNote falls short of specially designed commercial lab notebook software. If you select the “History” menu, you can see multiple versions of each page and highlight contributions by multiple collaborators. OneNote automatically keeps a date and time stamp for each version that is saved, so you’ll know when the changes were made. But OneNote doesn’t keep every version of the pageonly changes made on up to 10 unique days. So if you will be making edits to pages at lots of different times, you should make periodic backups of your notebook (which is probably a good idea anyway) by navigating to File/Options/Save & Backup.


What software do you use for your electronic lab notebook? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments!

Jessica Polka

Jessica Polka is director of ASAPbio, a biologist-driven nonprofit working to improve life sciences communication. She is also a visiting scholar at the Whitehead Institute and a member of ASCB's public policy committee.

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