There’s no one way to organize your data, but a consistent and descriptive file structure can save you time and money later. Use a system that makes sense to you so that keeping things in order becomes a habit instead of a chore.

Why bother?

  • Save money. Well-organized, easy-to-find files make a big impact on the efficiency of your research. This is especially important if you are sharing active data with collaborators.
  • Increase your impact. In the long run, well-managed data are more discoverable, accessible, and reusable (including by your future self!). This will help increase the visibility and impact of your work.
  • Demonstrate integrity. Discoverable, accessible, and reusable data are fundamental to ensuring reproducible or replicable research.
  • It’s required. Most funding agencies now require a data management plan for grant proposals. Publishers increasingly insist on data sharing as a condition of publishing your work. Organized, reusable data help demonstrate compliance.

File Formats

Making sure data are accessible in the future is a challenge, but choosing file formats carefully helps avoid obsolescence. Use formats that are:

  • Non-proprietary, open, documented standards (e.g., .tif, .txt, .csv, .pdf)
  • Encoded with standard characters (e.g., ASCII, UTF-8)
  • Used commonly in your research community

File Naming

Adopt a naming convention and use it throughout a project (or throughout your career). Consider including a README.txt file that explains your naming convention and any codes or abbreviations you use. File names should:

  • Describe the contents of the file, but not be overly long. Avoid generic names (like draft.doc; final2.xls) that can be hard to decipher and easily overwritten.
  • Include dates. Don’t rely on system dates, which can be misleading. Recommended formats look like: YYYYMMDD or YYYY-MM-DD.
  • Reserve 3-letter file extensions for application-specific codes (e.g., .jpg, .mov, .tif).
  • Not contain special characters like "/ \ : * ? " < > [ ] & $. These have meaning in software and operating systems and can cause trouble.
  • Not contain spaces. These are problematic for some operating systems. Use underscores (file_name), dashes (file-name), or camel case (FileName) instead.

Tools and Resources