Organising data

Choosing a logical and consistent way to name and organise your files allows you and others to locate and use them easily. The best time to think about this is at the start of a project, during data management planning.

An agreed naming convention will provide consistency, making it easier to find and correctly identify your files, prevent version control problems when working on files collaboratively, and generally mitigate the risk of error.

File naming conventions

Digital file names can be important for identifying and finding digital files. Decide on a file naming convention at the start of your project.

Useful file names are:

  • consistent
  • meaningful to you and your colleagues
  • allow you to find the file easily

It is useful if your research group agrees on the following elements of a file name:

  • Vocabulary – choose a standard vocabulary for file names, so that everyone uses a common language
  • Punctuation – decide on conventions for if and when to use punctuation symbols, capitals, hyphens and spaces
  • Dates – agree on a logical use of dates so that they display chronologically i.e. YYYY-MM-DD
  • Order - confirm which element should go first, so that files on the same theme are listed together and can therefore be found easily
  • Numbers – specify the amount of digits that will be used in numbering so that files are listed numerically e.g. 01, 002, etc.

Organising files

Whether you are working on a stand-alone computer, or on a networked drive, the need to establish a system that allows you to access files, avoid duplication and back-up easily, takes a little planning. A good place to start is to develop a logical folder structure. The following tips should help you develop such a system:

  • Use folders - group files within folders so information on a particular topic is located in one place.
  • Adhere to existing procedures - use established approaches in the research group which you can adopt.
  • Name folders appropriately - name folders after the areas of work to which they relate and not after individual researchers or students. This avoids confusion in shared workspaces if a member of staff leaves, and makes the file system easier for new staff or subsequent projects to navigate.
  • Be consistent – When developing a naming scheme for folders it’s important to apply the scheme consistently. Try to agree on a naming scheme from the beginning of the research project.
  • Structure folders hierarchically - start with a limited number of folders for the broader topics, and then create more specific folders within these.

Version Control

Because digital data can be so easily copied, overwritten or changed, it is important to adopt version control practices, particularly if data is being used by multiple members of a research team, or if research files are shared across different locations.

A regime to synchronise different copies or versions of files will improve research efficiency and help guarantee the authenticity of data. Version control mechanisms should be established and documented before any data is collected and generated.

Good practice includes:

  • using version control tables
  • recording version and status of a file e.g. draft, interim, final etc.
  • deciding how many versions to keep, for how long and how to organise them
  • keeping a single master copy of data
  • limiting access to master copies to designated team members
  • recording all changes to master files

Sample version control template