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A page of Robert H. Gibbs Jr.'s field notebook

Fieldnotes refer to qualitative notes recorded by scientists or researchers in the course of field research, during or after their observation of a specific organism or phenomenon they are studying. The notes are intended to be read as evidence that gives meaning and aids in the understanding of the phenomenon. Fieldnotes allow the researcher to access the subject and record what they observe in an unobtrusive manner.

One major disadvantage of taking fieldnotes is that they are recorded by an observer and are thus subject to (a) memory and (b) possibly, the conscious or unconscious bias of the observer.[1] It is best to record fieldnotes while making observations in the field or immediately after leaving the site to avoid forgetting important details. Some suggest immediately transcribing one's notes from a smaller pocket-sized notebook to something more legible in the evening or as soon as possible. Errors which occur from transcription often outweigh the errors which stem from illegible writing in the actual “field” notebook (Ramsen 1977).

Fieldnotes are particularly valued in descriptive sciences such as ethnography, biology, ecology, geology, and archaeology, each of which have long traditions in this area.


The structure of fieldnotes can vary depending on the field the author is in. Generally, there are two components of fieldnotes: descriptive information and reflective information.[2]

Descriptive information is factual data that is being recorded. Factual data includes time and date, the state of the physical setting, social environment, descriptions of the subjects being studied and their roles in the setting, and the impact that the observer may have had on the environment.[2]

Reflective information is the observer's reflections about the observation being conducted. These reflections are ideas, questions, concerns, and other related thoughts.[2]

Fieldnotes can also include sketches, diagrams, and other drawings. Visually capturing a phenomenon requires the observer to pay more attention to every detail as to not overlook anything.[3] An author does not necessarily need to possess great artistic abilities to craft an exceptional note. In many cases, a rudimentary drawing or sketch can greatly assist in later data collection and synthesis.[4] Increasingly, photographs may be included as part of a fieldnote when collected in a digital format.

Others may further sub-divide the structure of fieldnotes. Nigel Rapport [5] writes that fieldnotes in anthropology transition rapidly among three types.

1.     Inscription – where the writer records notes, their impressions, and potentially important keywords.

2.     Transcription – where the author writes down dictated local text

3.     Description – a reflective type of writing that synthesizes previous observations and analysis for a later situation in which a more coherent conclusion can be made of the notes.[5]

Fieldnotes in Biology and Ecology[edit]

Taking fieldnotes in biology and other natural sciences will differ slightly from those taken in social sciences, as they may be limited to interactions regarding a focal species and/or subject. An example of a good ornithological fieldnote is shown here from Remsen 1977 [4] regarding a sighting of a Cassin's sparrow, a relatively rare bird for the region it was found in. Due to copyright reasons it is not posted here, follow citation for image and navigate to "Figure 2".

This level of detail is to be strived for in biological fieldnotes. Even if the writer has little artistic ability, the amount of detail that can still be retained for later synthesis is enormous. Here, the writer sketches a display flight pattern, a sonogram (or spectrogram) for the sparrow's voice, and an exhaustive description of its plumage and other characteristics.

Grounded Theory[edit]

Methods for analysing and integrating fieldnotes into qualitative or quantitative research are continuing to develop. Grounded theory is a method for integrating data in qualitative research done primarily by social scientists. This may have implications for fieldnotes in the natural sciences as well.[6]

Value of Fieldnotes[edit]

Fieldnotes are extremely valuable for scientists at each step of their training.[4] In an article discussing the advantages of fieldnotes, Remsen 1977 discusses the tragic loss of information from birdwatchers in his study area that could have been taking detailed fieldnotes but neglected to do so. This comment points to a larger issue regarding how often one should be taking fieldnotes. In this case, Remsen was upset because of the multitudes of “eyes and ears” that could have supplied potentially important information for his bird surveys, but instead remained with the observers. Scientists like Remsen are of the opinion that field time can be easily wasted if notes are not taken.

Currently, nature phone apps and digital citizen science databases (like eBird) are changing the form and frequency of field data collection, and may contribute to de-emphasizing the importance of hand-written notes. Apps are amazing tools that have opened up new possibilities for citizen science. Despite this, taking time to hand write fieldnotes can help with synthesis of details that one may not remember as well from data entry in an app. Writing in such a detailed manner may contribute to the personal growth of a scientist [4]

Nigel Rapport, an anthropological field writer submits that fieldnotes are filled with the conventional realities of “two-forms of life”, local and academic. These lives are different and often contradictory but are often brought together through the efforts of a “field writer”.[5] The academic side refers to one's professional involvements where fieldnotes take a certain official tone. The local side reflects more of the personal aspects of a writer, so the fieldnotes may also relate more to personal entries. A good source for a more anthropological take on fieldnotes can be found through Roger Sanjek's chapters in (1990 Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology).[7]

The Grinnell Method of Note Taking[edit]

One of the most important figures regarding efficient and accurate note taking is Joseph Grinnell.[8] The Grinnell technique has been regarded by many ornithologists as one of the best standardized methods for taking accurate fieldnotes.[4]

The technique has four main parts:

  • A field-worthy notebook where one records direct observations as they are being observed.
  • A larger more substantial journal containing written entries on observations and information, transcribed from the smaller field notebook as soon as possible.
  • Species accounts of the notes taken on specific species.
  • A catalog to record location and date for collected specimens.

Examples of Bias in Fieldnotes[edit]

See citation to access this field note on page 1, navigate to "Brown Quail".[9] High-quality field notes include extensive descriptions of the observed organism; here, describing the most likely factors that are driving the distribution of this bird species. The first sentence in this note states that the variation in appearance is due “doubtless” to an uncertain climate. While this may be a fact, it is a detail that might be better saved for an official paper or report from this study rather than writing at the time of observation.[9] These notes have likely been transcribed from a smaller notebook to a larger journal.

Simple Field Notes[edit]

Example of a simple fieldnote that is primarily made up of sketches. Minor details added such as labels for some parts of the bird's topography.

The example fieldnote on the right exemplifies an objective and simple field note. Note that there are no interpretations or impressions written alongside the sketches. This entry is also efficient, incorporating many sketches onto a single page. In comparison to the fieldnote explained above, this note does not include any assumptions regarding the subject. Instead, it lists species names, parts of the species are labelled, and even different angles of the same bird are included to focus on one trait like the rectrices (tail feathers).

Considerations when recording fieldnotes[edit]

Fieldnotes are an excellent example of the "researcher as an instrument". Decisions about what is recorded and how can have a significant impact on the ultimate findings derived from the research. As such, creating and adhering to a systematic method for recording fieldnotes is an important consideration for a qualitative researcher. Robert K. Yin, an eminent American social scientist, recommends the following considerations as best practices when recording qualitative field notes.

Create vivid images: focusing on recording vivid descriptions of actions that take place in the field, instead of recording your interpretation of them. This is particularly important early in the research process. Immediately trying to interpret events can lead to premature conclusions that can prevent later insight when more observation has occurred. Focusing on the actions taking place in the field, instead of trying to describe people or scenes, can be a useful tool to minimize personal stereotyping of the situation.

The verbatim principle: similar to the vivid images, the goal is to accurately record what is happening in the field, not your paraphrasing (and likely unconscious stereotyping) of those events. Additionally, in social science research that involves studying culture, it is important to faithfully capture the language and habits in that culture as a first step towards full understanding.

Include drawings and sketches: these can quickly and accurately capture important aspects of field activity that are difficult to record in words, and can be very helpful for recall when you are reviewing your fieldnotes.

Develop your own transcribing language: while no one technique of transcribing (or "jotting") is perfect, most qualitative researchers develop a systematic approach to their own note taking. Considering the multiple competing demands on your attention (the simultaneous observation, processing, and recording of rich qualitative data in an unfamiliar environment), perfecting a system that you can automatically use and know will be interpretable later allows you to allocate your full attention to observation. The ability to distinguish notes about events themselves from notes to yourself is a key feature of your personal language. Prior to engaging in qualitative research for the first time, practicing a transcribing format beforehand can improve the likelihood of successful observation.

Convert field notes to full notes daily: prior to discussing your observations with anyone else, you should set aside time each day to convert your field notes. At the very least, any unclear abbreviations, illegible words, or unfinished thoughts should be completed that would be uninterpretable later. In addition, the opportunity to collect one's thoughts and reflect on that day's events can lead to recalling additional details, uncovering emerging themes, lead to new understanding and help you plan for future observations. This is also a good time to add the day's notes to your total collection in an organized manner.

Verify notes during collection: converting your fieldnotes as described above will likely lead you to discover key points and themes that can then be verified while you are still present in the field. If conflicting themes are emerging, further data collection can be directed in a manner to help resolve the discrepancy.

Obtain permission to record: while electronic devices and audiovisual recording can be useful tools in performing field research, there are some common pitfalls to avoid. Ensure that permission is obtained for the use of these devices beforehand, and ensure that the devices to be used for recording have been previously tested and can be used inconspicuously.

Keep a personal journal in addition to your field notes: as you, the researcher, are likely the main instrument, insight into your own reactions to and initial interpretations of events can help identify any undesired personal biases that might have influenced your research. This is useful for reflexivity.[10]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  • Michael R. Canfield, Field Notes on Science & Nature, Harvard University Press, 2011, ISBN 9780674057579
  • Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz, Linda L. Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, University Of Chicago Press, 1995, ISBN 0-226-20681-5
  • Roger Sanjek, Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology, Cornell University Press, 1990.

External links


  1. ^ Asplund & Welle, M. & C.G. (2018). "Advancing Science: How Bias Holds Us Back". Neuron. 99 (4): 635–639. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2018.07.045. PMID 30138587. S2CID 52073870.
  2. ^ a b c Labaree, Robert V. "Research Guides: Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Writing Field Notes". Retrieved 2016-04-12.
  3. ^ Canfield, Michael (2011). Field Notes on Science & Nature. Harvard University Press. p. 162. ISBN 9780674057579.
  4. ^ a b c d e Remsen, J.V. (1977). "On Taking Field Notes" (PDF). American Birds. 31:5: 946–953.
  5. ^ a b c Rapport, Nigel (1991). "Writing Fieldnotes: The Conventionalities of Note-Taking and Taking Note in the Field". Anthropology Today. 7 (1): 10–13. doi:10.2307/3032670. JSTOR 3032670.
  6. ^ Charmaz & Belgrave, K & L.L. (2015). "Grounded Theory". The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. doi:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeosg070.pub2. ISBN 9781405124331.
  7. ^ Sanjek, Roger (1990). Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801497261.
  8. ^ "Joseph Grinnell", Wikipedia, 2020-12-08, retrieved 2020-12-08
  9. ^ a b Berney, Fredc (1907). "Field Notes on Birds of the Richmond District, North Queensland". Emu - Austral Ornithology. 6:3 (3): 106–115. doi:10.1071/MU906106.
  10. ^ Yin, Robert (2011). Qualitative Research from Start to Finish (Second ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 163–183. ISBN 978-1-4625-1797-8.