While looking for information on how to perform a particular basic lab technique, I found the lab manual from another university's undergraduate lab course. This lab manual illustrates the technique very well, with concise description, useful tips on fine points of the procedure and nice, helpful pictures of how the procedure should be performed.

In my research notes, I try to cite relevant material in a format resembling usual citation styles of well-known journals, both to build a habit and because it happens to be a good way to keep track of precisely what information I based my decisions on.

However, this lab manual does not have a DOI or ISBN and the PDF itself does not provide enough information to uniquely identify it in a traditional fashion. By looking at the URL it was posted under, I can deduce a fair bit regarding exactly what course this document pertains to (in my particular case, it seems to be the 2013/2014 version of the lab manual of the Bi204 course at Boston University, hosted here). What is the best way to cite it, to ensure that future readers of my notebook will be able to follow the citation without being hopelessly confused about which document I am talking about?

  • In theory, I can keep searching for other, more "formal" texts such as journal publications, then cite those. However, I don't want to do this. Firstly, I would be doing extra work to find what I already have discovered. Second, the manual is exceptionally well written and it will be hard to find other sources which provide the same information just as clearly. Third, I would like to give credit to the person who was actually the most helpful to me in my own reasoning.
  • I could just cite the reference given by the lab manual, but many of the issues I raise for the previous point apply.
  • I could cite the URL, but what if a year later the web page changes drastically, and the version of the notebook I used disappears?

I would like to, to the extent that is reasonably possible, provide the means for locating this lab manual to anyone reading my notes in the far future, even if the original author removes the manual from the web page I found it at. And I would like to provide this information in a style that conforms to established citation practices of scientific writing. How can I do this?

  • 4
    The "about" page of the course you linked to has the contact information for the creator of the course. Perhaps you could contact her and ask how she'd like the materials to be cited? Maybe she'd put it on figshare or something where it would be more permanent and get a DOI
    – ff524
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 7:27
  • @ff524 I already did that, actually. I'll report back here with any developments.
    – Superbest
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 7:30
  • With this and similar time-dependent resources which probably have some sort of expiry date, it's worth checking whether an appropriate version of the resource is indexed by the Wayback Machine. This makes it easier to find it again in the future and, if needed, to justify to outsiders the provenance of the resource.
    – E.P.
    Commented Feb 1, 2015 at 19:01

3 Answers 3


BibTeX knows how to deal with this, using the entry type @manual:

    organization = {University of Neverland},
    author = {John Doe},
    title = {Manual for ABC123},
    year = {2012},

If you don't know the author because it is not listed in the document, you can omit the field. The name of the university will be used instead.


In principle, this should be cited as if it were a book. Remember that ISBN's and URL's aren't a normal part of bibliographic references, so the fact that it did not go through a "standard" publishing process doesn't really matter:

Author, T. Laboratory Manual for Course X. City: University, Year.

or whatever the comparable formatting for your style guide is. (Note, write the name of the university, rather than indicating a "university press.")


Although this does not address the question of how to cite a lab manual, I did find out how to cite this particular lab manual. The author has informed me that there is in fact an ISBN, 978-0-7380-6200-6 (though I don't think it is listed in all the major databases), and the correct way to cite it would be:

O'Connor, Clare M. (2013) Investigations in Molecular Cell Biology. Hayden-McNeill Publishing Co., Plymouth MI.

I suppose the moral of the story is that asking the author can indeed be productive for questions about how to attribute a source.

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