Background: Operative notes represent an essential element in safe patient care and should therefore be clear and accurate. This comparative study examined whether operative notes accurately represented the laparoscopic cholecystectomy (LC) as performed. Methods: Nine Dutch teaching and non-teaching hospitals were invited to record 20 successive LCs each and to collect the corresponding operative notes. The main outcome measures were overall differences and correspondence between video recordings and notes based on the Dutch guideline for LC and the occurrence of iatrogenic gallbladder perforation. A comparison was made of the cumulative results of recordings and operative notes, and individual recordings were compared with the corresponding notes. Results: Seven hospitals participated in the study; 125 video recordings and operative notes were fully analysed. Recordings showed more steps of the procedure than did notes. Individual comparisons showed significant differences (P <= 0.001) between the recording and the corresponding note for the steps 'Introducing trocars under vision', 'Condition of the gallbladder', 'Critical view of safety' and 'Removing first and second trocar under vision'. Iatrogenic gallbladder perforation with spilled bile occurred in 31 patients (24.8 per cent), and was both recorded and reported in 29 patients. Iatrogenic gallbladder perforation with spilled bile and spilled stones occurred in 15 patients (12.0 per cent), and was recorded and reported in 11 patients. Conclusion: Operative notes do not adequately represent the actual LCs performed as they describe fewer important procedural steps. It is suggested that operative notes should include video recordings.