Documenting your data

Describing and documenting data is critical to making them discoverable and useable in the future. Such information about data is called metadata and includes the who, what, when, where, and why of how the dataset was generated.

The kinds of metadata you want to have will depend in part on your field and the nature of your project. Many fields have metadata standards that specify what information should be collected, which helps datasets within those fields to be interoperable. Not sure if your field has metadata standards? The Research Data Alliance hosts a community-maintained list of Disciplinary Metadata Standards that may help. 

If there isn't an existing standard for your field, that’s okay. There are general guidelines that can help make sure your data are well documented. At the minimum, the metadata for your dataset should include (based on MIT Documentation and Metadata guidance and UK Data Archive Study Level Documentation):

  • Title of the dataset/project
  • Creator: names and addresses of data creator(s)
  • Identifier: can be a permanent identifier or an internal project number.
  • Funder
  • Rights: Intellectual property or licensing rights for the data.
  • Access Information
  • Language
  • Project dates
  • Project description
  • Methodology: how data was generated, including equipment or software used, your experimental protocol, and/or other things you would include in a lab notebook
  • Data Structure, including relationships between files
  • Variable names or other data-level documentation, including an explanation of any codes, abbreviations, or variables used in the data or in the file naming structure.
  • Data Citation: Preferred format for citing data.

Documentation can be included in a README.txt file (or other relevant file name) in the folder with the data files.The README.txt file should accompany the data if files are moved or deposited in a repository. Be sure the README file includes such information as file folder hierarchy or other external context of the data.

PRDS is here to help you with any questions or issues that arise about your metadata -- to get help or advice on metadata, please get in touch with us via email for our virtual office hours.