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Research support

How to manage your data

The main elements of good data management throughout your research project involve: data storage and back-up, file naming and versioning, documentation and handling sensitive data.

Being able to easily locate and retrieve data is essential, not only to you but also for those who you collaborate with.  It will save a lot of time and effort if you establish a file organising scheme before you begin your research.  

Check if there is a file naming convention already in place.  If not set up folders and create a file naming convention that everyone who needs can access in a shared storage area.

It is common practice to document your organisation scheme in a 'readme' file which is stored in a top level folder when it can be readily accessed.

Manage and Organise your data

Data Documentation

At the start of your project it is essential to plan how the research data will be documented in order for it to be used, shared and reused.

  • The documentation should put the data in context and give explanation in order for original researchers wanting to revisit their data at a later stage or new researchers wanting to use the original data.
  • When you submit your data to a repository/archive you will be asked a set of questions - it will be easier to do this if you have incorporated this information in the documentation at the start of your project. 
  • Documenting your data will also be useful when you come to write up your journal article - you may need to describe how you collected your data in enough detail to allow your results to be reproduced and verified. 

Levels of Documentation

The documentation should include information on why and how data were related, prepared, digitised, the content, structure and any amendments that may have overreacted.  it will normally be at two levels.

1. High level documentation: applicable to all data files and should document:

  • an abstract of the project
  • information on copyright and ownership
  • summary of data creation processes
  • general context of the project

2. Lower level documentation: individual to specific data and will include:

  • annotations
  • demographic details
  • researcher notes.

How you structure your folders and files will depend on the nature of your research.  However, when working in collaboration with other researchers it is essential to agree upon the structure in advance.

Tips for structuring your files

  • Use folders - group files within folders so information on a particular topic is located in one place
  • Check for existing conventions and procedures - your department/school may already have a system you can use
  • Give folders meaningful names - 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 to navigate for new people joining the workspace
  • Be consistent – when developing a naming scheme for your folders it is important that once you have decided on a method, you stick to it. If you can, try to agree on a naming scheme from the outset of your research project
  • Structure folders hierarchically - start with a limited number of folders for the broader topics, and then create more specific folders within these
  • Separate ongoing and completed work - as you start to create lots of folders and files, it is a good idea to start thinking about separating your older documents from those you are currently working on
  • Backup – ensure that your files, whether they are on your local drive, or on a network drive, are backed up
  • Review records - assess materials regularly or at the end of a project to ensure files are not kept needlessly. Put a reminder in your calendar so you do not forget!

(Taken from: University of Cambridge (2020) Research Data


Good file names provide useful cues to the content, status and version of the file.  They should be:

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

File names can be made up from:

  • a project acronym
  • content description
  • file type of information
  • date
  • creator name or initials
  • version number
  • status, for example current or completed

Best practice for file naming:

  • Vocabulary – choose a standard vocabulary for file names, so that everyone uses a common language.  Avoid very long file names
  • 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
  • Version control – it is important to distinguish between different versions or drafts of your files - especially if more than one person is working on the files.