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The Art (and Science) of Good Field Notes

A scientist studying isolated chimps takes notes at night by headlamp; photo by Michael Nichols


For scientists who work out in the field a good set of notes is crucial.  A researcher’s notebook is where data is compiled, discoveries are recorded and where failures, insights and scientific breakthroughs become history . . .  well, for a lucky few anyway.

But there are few hard-and-fast rules for what goes into field notes.  Many scientists develop a method for recording their observations through trial and error.  They determine the best way to organize their information and what details to include and discard as they go along.  What a researcher chooses to record often says something about more than just his work — it provides us with an understanding of the way he carries out that work and a history of his ideas.  Note-taking, it turns out, is a surprisingly personal activity.  Flip through the pages of a biologist’s notes and you may find sketches of plants and animals, hand-drawn maps, and the author’s occasional excited exclamation or question to himself.  It can be like getting an opportunity to hear someone think out loud.

Field Notes on Science & Nature, a book which came across my desk earlier this month, gives readers a chance to do some eavesdropping of their own by providing a glimpse into a few of these notebooks.  This collection of essays by twelve scientists and naturalists includes scans taken directly from the contributors’ field notes.  The writers also reflect on the lessons they learned and give advice to aspiring researchers and nature-lovers on how to record their own observations.  Biologist Erick Greene offers these tips, among others, as a kind of best practices guide:



  1. Use a hardbound notebook
  2. Make sure to make a key for any abbreviations you use
  3. Create an index
  4. Add information on your location
  5. Write your contact information in a prominent location
  6. Write pertinent field information with every new entry


Of course, for an increasing number of researchers, a “notebook” is just as likely to consist of a laptop as a pad of paper.  For some out in the field, these technological advances are a lifesaver.  Katydid expert Piotr Naskrecki, for one, was thrilled to trade in his disorganized stacks of paper for a FileMaker Pro database he designed himself.  (Naskrecki offers his database manager, called MANTIS, free to others in the scientific community).  A self-described “pencilophobe” who was constantly misplacing the haphazard jottings that served as his notes, Naskrecki writes that his laptop saved his scientific career.

Other scientists are less enthusiastic.  Databases are great for – yes, tracking data.  What they do less well is capture the human element:  the difficulties encountered, the excitement of an insight, the small moments that create the narrative at the heart of scientific discovery. Reading through a stranger’s handwritten notes, with their doodles and their first-hand accounts, can offer a vicarious thrill — even to those of us who are uninitiated, clueless, non-scientists.  Sometimes it can be something small that catches us, like Jenny Keller’s note about the filetail catshark (“they have metallic eyes!”) or Darwin’s description of his encounter with tortoises on Galapagos Island:

“In my walk I met two very large Tortoises (circumference of shell about 7 ft).  One was eating a Cactus & then quietly walked away.  The other gave a deep & loud hiss & then drew back his head.  They were so heavy, I could scarcely lift them off the ground.  Surrounded by the black Lava, the leafless shrubs & large Cacti, they appeared most old-fashioned antediluvian animals or rather inhabitants of some other planet.”

The matter-of-fact tone combined with the strangeness of the scene — brilliant Victorian scientist wrangles tortoise in a lava field — make this diary entry priceless.  But, even better, it’s a chance for us to be in that scene and see those tortoises as Darwin saw them over one hundred and seventy five years ago.  It also helps explain the reservations that are expressed by some of the writers in Field Notes.  What will happen when databases replace diaries, and jpgs eliminate sketchbooks?  What will the scientists of today leave us to read two hundred years from now?  What is the future of these kinds of stories?  No one is sure right now.  Their fate in the digital age remains to be seen.

In her essay, paleontologist Anna Behrensmeyer puts it this way:

“Like the rock strata I dig through in the field, I still mine these notebooks for information, peeling them back page by page.…  I cannot imagine banks of computer files being as accessible or having the power to take me, or other unknown future readers, back to those great days in the field, to the facts, colleagues, excitement, and insights that are still alive in the handwritten pages of these special journals.”

Paging through through the notebook pages of bygone expeditions in Field Notes it’s hard to disagree with her.


Field Notes on Science & Nature. Edited by Michael R. Canfield; Harvard University Press, 2011.