Organise Your Digital Research Data

The way you organise your research data affects the way you access, sort and use them. This section has information on folder structure, file (i.e. document or data) naming and versioning.

File structures and naming conventions are often unique to lab and research groups, so please check with your School to find out if there are existing protocols for organising your data.

Folder Structure

A folder structure organises digital and physical data into logical groups. Follow these principles:

  • Keep your raw (primary) data in a separate file from your working data
  • Co-locate data files with the software tools needed to manage them e.g. store script files and data files in the same folder
  • Store consent forms separately for ethics and privacy reasons
  • Nest your folders in the direction that best suits how you plan to use them e.g. FacilityA > Interviews OR Interviews > FacilityA
  • Don’t create too many empty folders ahead of time
  • Don’t set up a folder hierarchy that’s deeper than you really need
  • If you’re collaborating with others, try to agree on a common folder structure that makes sense to everyone

See the UK Data Archive's Organising Data example

File and Folder Naming Conventions

Be consistent when you name your data and the folders they’re stored in. Decide on a convention early in your project and stick to it. Record your convention (e.g. in a lab notebook, or in a README.TXT file) and make it available to anyone else who needs to access and use the data.

Choose useful keywords that you and others might use to search for your folders and files, separating each word with a hyphen or underscore. Useful keywords may include:

  • project acronym
  • type of data
  • researcher initials
  • date
  • location
  • subject
  • conditions

Consider how your storage system will sort and display your files when you name them. For example:

  • start your title with the date, formatted as YYYYMMDD, to display your files in chronological order
  • prefix your titles with numbers, such as 01, 02 etc. to enforce a specific sort of order

The software or computing environments you work with may impose technical restrictions on how you name your files:

  • Don't manually change or delete the file extension suffix (e.g. .docx; .pdf; .csv) which is usually generated automatically
  • Avoid using special characters in filenames (apart from hyphens and underscores)

Version Control

Digital data can be easily over-written, changed and copied. Working with outdated versions of files wastes research time and puts the authenticity of your data at risk. A version control system (manual or automated) allows you to keep track of changes made to your data over time.

Some document management systems can manage file versions for you. If you are not using a system with automated version control, you can use manual versioning by adding version terms to the file name, e.g.

  • author name or initials
  • date last modified
  • version number

Alternatively, you can use a version control table.

For advanced version control needs (i.e. for code) consider using version control software e.g. Git and Mercurial.

Software Carpentry: Version Control Software Lessons (includes videos)

The Programming Historian: An Introduction to Version Control Using GitHub Desktop

Find out more:

  • UK Data Archive: Organising Data (practical examples and exercises covering folder structures, naming conventions, and version control)
  • Open Science Framework: General information on file organisation and creating a data dictionary
  • ANDS (Australian National Data Service): Versioning

Manage Your Research Data Tool Kit

Researcher Development

Contact Us

Research Data Management Librarian
Guidance, training opportunities and practical support.

Research Development Team
Data management (funder retention requirements) advice for current and future research projects.

Information Technology Services (ITS)
Data-related services and advice on storage, backup, security, data quality, and metadata identification. Limited software for home installation.

Contact a Subject Librarian
Personal research help by email, phone, or appointment.

Acknowledgements

These guidelines are informed by information provided under open licenses by other organisations including:

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