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Format 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 data-services@sfu.ca during this time, and we can set up a meeting via video conferencing or telephone.

 

Making informed file format decisions can help ensure long-term accessibility to your research data.

What is a file format?

A file format is a way of saving information in the form of a computer file. The file format type will depend on what type of data is being saved, as well as what type of program is used to save or open the file. 

Choosing a file format

When choosing a file format to save your data, it is important to consider how easily accessible the data file will be for other users in the future.

Some file formats are developed specifically for certain programs (such as the .doc or .docx formats for Microsoft Word). This puts restrictions on the type of programs that can open these file types, as the original software developer controls whether the programs required to open these files will still be supported in future. For these reasons, more open and widely supported file formats are recommended for saving research data. Some key file format characteristics to look for are:

  • Complete and open documentation about the format
  • Platform independence, non-proprietary (e.g. not a file that can only be opened in either Windows or Mac)
  • Minimal embedded content (for example, video and images are stored separately from documents rather than embedded in them)
  • Wide adoption -- common programs and formats are better
  • No password protection on the individual files themselves

For more information about file format selection guidelines, refer to these recommended file formats for different data types, or see the Library of Congress list of digital file formats with details on the sustainability of each type. 

    Additional resources

    SFU Archives and Records Management Format Policy Registry 
    A detailed list of digital formats with considerations for preservation, usability and accessibility.

    U.S. National Archives and Records Administration digital file formats
    A digital preservation framework that includes recommendations on file formats for various data types.

    File formats and software - UK Data Service
    Overview of recommended research data file formats as well as suggestions for converting and exporting data files with some common pieces of software.

    Recommended Formats Table - UK Data Service
    Table outlining recommended file format guidance for data preservation, sharing, and reuse, as determined by the UK Data Service.