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Structure your research data


March 20, 2020 update: While the physical SFU Libraries are temporarily closed due to COVID-19 measures, we are happy to continue to support you with any research data management questions remotely. Please feel free to contact us by email at during this time, and we can set up a meeting via video conferencing or telephone.


Using strategies to structure your data files by organizing and naming them will help users to better identify and retrieve the data they need. These strategies include using logical and consistent folder structures, predictable systems for file naming, and also structuring data efficiently in the individual data files themselves (e.g., in spreadsheets). 

In addition to structuring your research data files by organizing and naming them appropriately, you should also make sure to distinguish different versions of data files from one another.

File and folder naming strategies

There are three broad criteria to consider regarding the naming and labelling of research data files:

  • Organisation of data file folders is important for future access and retrieval, and needs to take into account the naming constraints of the system where the file is located
  • Context could include content specific or descriptive information, independent of where the data are stored
  • Consistency includes selecting a naming convention and making sure that the rules are followed systematically by always including the same information (such as date and time) in the same order (e.g. YYYYMMDD)

When it comes to deciding what information to record in the file name, there are several common file elements to consider including:

  • Creation date (the date and/or time when the particular version of the file was created)
  • Creator (the author or contributor to this particular version of the file)
  • Description (a brief, expository note about the file and/or its context)
  • Research team (details of the research team involved in the file's creation)
  • Publication date (information about a work's date of publication)
  • Version (often a number-based record of the files revision chronology)
  • Project no. (project-specific details to give additional research context to the file)

Additional resources

Organizing data in spreadsheets -- from Data Carpentry
A lesson on organizing data in spreadsheets, including best practices for structuring data tables for analysis and reusability.

Five Steps to Decide what Data to Keep
This guide sets out some guidelines for researchers regarding what types of research data they should actively preserving as part of their research data management practice.

Data Organization - Folder Structure - UCD Dublin
Recommendations for file naming and folder structure for research data.

Organising data - UK Data Service
File name suggestions and well-organised folder structures for finding and keeping track of data

File naming and folder hierarchy - MIT Libraries
Guidelines for naming and organizing research data