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Methods and Study Design

Tips For Writing Clear, Effective, and Foolproof Lab Procedures


Dr. Joe Licciardi, Chair and Professor, Earth Sciences Department, UNH

April 2022

If you have ever directed a laboratory facility or supervised a research lab group, then you probably already know how critically important it is to have clear, detailed, and understandable documentation for the procedures and protocols followed in your lab. You may even have your lab procedures posted on a website or intend to publish your procedures to make them accessible to others in your field. In fact, some journals serve as primary forums for publishing papers focused on dissemination of methods such as Nature Methods. If you decide to publish your methods to maximize their utility and impact, it is of paramount importance to craft reproducible, clear, and detailed procedures.

As such, if you are working on developing lab procedures for your facility—or are updating and revising existing protocols—read on for advice and useful guidance from established labs with tried-and-true procedures.

Major Considerations and Advice on Best Practices

Safety first: Do you work with hazardous materials? Make sure your lab procedures are crystal clear about the safe use and disposal of these materials, proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and access to material safety data sheets (MSDS) for all reagents and chemicals. Coordination with your institution’s environmental health and safety office is essential to make sure your lab is in compliance with all regulations.

Ensure reproducibility: Would someone with an appropriate background be able to understand and follow your lab procedures and reproduce your results in their own lab without your direct supervision? Reproducibility is a hallmark of effective scientific lab methodologies, so be sure to develop written procedures that are clear and detailed enough to ensure consistent outcomes.

Think outside your lab bubble: Are your lab procedures tailored specifically to your lab space, and perhaps even to specific equipment models and/or annoying issues like that fume hood sash that keeps getting stuck if you do not raise it in a certain way? Bear in mind that your procedures will be more useful if they are written in a manner that will make them transferrable to a different lab facility that might have a different set-up and variable equipment.

Know your target audience: How much background knowledge and experience are you assuming in your written procedures? Too much? Too little? What is the role of training for people who work in your lab? Consider your target audience when drafting and distributing your procedures. For example, if the procedures are intended for experienced specialists in your field, you can assume a certain level of familiarity with common laboratory techniques and focus on describing specific details.

Avoid pedantic instruction: Do your procedures “over-explain” various techniques and contain unnecessary steps described in wordy detail? Are you assuming a certain level of “common sense”? Try to strike an appropriate balance between thorough documentation and over-explanation. For example, it is probably not necessary to instruct lab users to remove a vial cap before pipetting a solution into the vial, but you should certainly indicate exactly how much solution to add.

Provide more than just the recipe: Do your lab procedures explain the science and goals behind certain procedures, or are they simply written as step-by-step recipes without explanation? Remember that things can and will go wrong in lab work, so there must be some basis of knowledge for knowing how to adapt the procedures and improvise to resolve unforeseen issues.

Roll with the changes: Are your lab procedures written in a way that will accommodate inevitable advances in knowledge and refinements in technique? It is good practice to make it clear that your current procedures will likely evolve in the future to include new and improved revisions, and to note the date of the most recent revision.

Don’t forget to do the dishes: Do your procedures give equally thorough treatment to unglamorous but critical activities such as preparing the lab space for work, cleaning labware, and leaving the lab in a clean and safe condition for others when you are finished? It is not uncommon for a large proportion of lab time to be consumed by keeping things meticulously clean, fully functional, and ready for the next lab user to optimize efficiency between lab sessions.

Give credit where credit is due: Do your procedures borrow heavily from techniques developed by others or found in published papers? Do they adopt tips and tricks from colleagues and collaborators? Did you develop some of the procedures yourself? Be sure to cite sources and also be clear where the techniques you describe and follow are original to your lab. Bear in mind that laboratory procedures are often treated as citable documents and may be referenced as such in the methods section of a manuscript.

The Bottom Line

A well-crafted set of effective, reproducible, and referenceable lab procedures is an invaluable resource for the scientific community, regardless of research discipline. Make sure to keep these best practices in mind as you develop, refine, and distribute your laboratory methods and protocols.

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