Keeping data safe is not enough. It is very easy for data to get disorganised quickly, making it difficult to use information which may have been gathered only a few months earlier.
Good file and folder organisation will help you to locate, retrieve and re-use your data quickly and accurately, thereby making it easier for you to manage your data. To achieve this, you need to do at least two things:
- Use folders to sort your files into a series of meaningful and useful groups
- Use naming conventions to give your files and folders meaningful names according to a consistent pattern
Although the guidance on this page is aimed at digital files and folders, it is just as important to organise and label physical files, folders and other materials in a meaningful, consistent and documented fashion. For further guidance on organising physical materials, contact [email protected].
Choose a file organisation scheme
You should establish a file organisation scheme at the start of your project, to avoid having to apply one retrospectively. If you are new to a research group, check whether there is an existing procedure to follow. If you are starting a new project with colleagues, agree as a group on a file organisation and naming scheme so that everyone can find data within the group’s shared storage space.
Once you have set up a file organisation scheme, you should document it: write down what should go in each folder and the naming convention you are using, along with any codes and abbreviations you are using. Save it in a 'readme' file, preferably in plain text, and store it in the top level folder for your project where you (or anyone in your group) will be able to access it easily.
Consider scheduling a regular review of your file organisation scheme:
- Make sure your files and folders conform to your scheme. It is easy to forget certain details, or to skip them when in haste, but if you tidy up your files regularly you can avoid problems
- Make sure your scheme is working for you. If you find you need to change or refine it, do not be afraid to do so. Just make sure you apply the changes consistently and update your 'readme' file accordingly
Structure files and folders
There are many ways to organise your files, so think about what makes sense for your research. Some suggestions are below:
- Use folders to group files with common properties: Think about how you might want to browse for your files in future. If you are doing experimental work, for example, will you want files from a particular day or a particular instrument? If you are working with archival material, will you want notes from a particular collection and a particular manuscript or accession number?
- Apply meaningful folder names: Ensure that you use clear and appropriate folder names that concisely convey the common property of the files inside.
- Keep group numbers manageable: If you end up with only one or two files in each folder, you may find your structure tedious to navigate, but if you have hundreds it can be time consuming to look through them all for the files you want.
- Structure folders hierarchically: Design a folder structure with broad topics at the highest level and specific folders within these.
- Separate current and completed work: You may find it helpful to move temporary drafts and completed work into separate folders. This will also make it easier to review what you need to keep as you go along.
You can find further guidance on organising data from the UK Data Service.
Naming files and folders
Here are some basic rules for naming files that should be applied to all documents created
- File and Folder names should be short, consistent and meaningful
- The most important element for finding a document should appear first: for example, if records are retrieved according to their date, then the date element should appear first
- Avoid unnecessary repetition in file names and paths
- Use capital letters to delimit words, not spaces or underscores: some software packages have difficulty recognising file names with spaces. This causes difficulty for files when they are published on the intranet or website
- Dates should appear as YYYY-MM-DD
- When including a number in a file name always provide at least a two-digit number (eg 01, 02)
- Version control: indicate where a document is ‘Draft’ or ‘Final’. You can also indicate the version of a document by the inclusion of a ‘V’ followed by the version number.
- Avoid using non-alphanumeric characters in file names: even if your operating system allows you to save the file, if you share your file with a collaborator they may not be able to open it.
Keep track of versions
As you work with your research materials it is important to distinguish between different versions or drafts of your files. Version control can help you to easily identify the current version of your data so that you avoid working on older or outdated copies. If you are working with others it can also help to link versions of the data to the time and author of the change.
There are a number of ways that different versions of data can be managed:
- File naming: a simple method of version control is to create a duplicate copy and then update version information to create a unique file or folder name
- Version control tables: these are included within documents and can capture more information than using file naming conventions. Version control tables typically include the new version number, date of the change, person who made the change and the nature or purpose of the change
- Version control systems: there are many automated systems available that can store a repository of files and monitor access to them, logging who made what change and when. Version control systems are particularly useful for collaborative development of code or software (eg Github)
You can find further guidance on version control and authenticity for files from the UK Data Service.
You can find guidance on semantic version numbering for software at semver.org.
For further guidance and support, contact the research data management officer at [email protected].
We acknowledge the work of the UK Data Service, the University of Glasgow, the University of Leicester and the University of Southampton in the development of this guidance.