Documenting your data is simply providing sufficient descriptive information about your data so that it can be used properly by you, your colleagues, and other researchers in the future. Well documented data is identifiable, understandable, and usable in the future. You should document your data at each stage of the research process, rather than attempting to recreate information at a later stage.
The term metadata is used to refer to your documentation since you are providing data about data. Researchers can choose among various metadata standards, often tailored to a particular file format or discipline. One such standard is DDI , designed to document numeric data files. Additional standards are listed on the left of this page.
Following are some general guidelines for aspects of your project and data that you should document, regardless of your discipline. At minimum, store this documentation in a readme.txt file or the equivalent, together with the data.
|Name of the dataset or research project that produced it|
|Names and addresses of the organization or people who created the data|
|Number used to identify the data, even if it is just an internal project reference number|
|Keywords or phrases describing the subject or content of the data|
|Organizations or agencies who funded the research|
|Any known intellectual property rights held for the data|
|Where and how your data can be accessed by other researchers|
|Language(s) of the intellectual content of the resource, when applicable|
|Key dates associated with the data, including: project start and end date; release date; time period covered by the data; and other dates associated with the data lifespan, e.g., maintenance cycle, update schedule|
|Where the data relates to a physical location, record information about its spatial coverage|
|How the data was generated, including equipment or software used, experimental protocol, other things one might include in a lab notebook|
|Along the way, record any information on how the data has been altered or processed|
|Citations to material for data derived from other sources, including details of where the source data is held and how it was accessed|
|List of all data files associated with the project, with their names and file extensions (e.g. 'NWPalaceTR.WRL', 'stone.mov')|
|Format(s) of the data, e.g. FITS, SPSS, HTML, JPEG, and any software required to read the data|
|Organization of the data file(s) and the layout of the variables, when applicable|
|List of variables in the data files, when applicable|
|Explanation of codes or abbreviations used in either the file names or the variables in the data files (e.g. '999 indicates a missing value in the data')|
|Date/time stamp for each file, and use a separate ID for each version|
|To test if your file has changed over time|
An equally important part of documentation is providing the information necessary to fully understand and interpret the data. At a minimum this should include:
Remember, it is easier to collect this as the data is created rather than after the fact.
Most data repositories and archives allow the submission of supporting documentation. And even if you have no plans to publish or distribute your data, keeping good records of the data as it evolves will pay dividends by helping you and your research team work easily with the data over time.
Selecting a standard or schema does not obligate you to use it to its fullest extent. You can use as much (or as little) as you need.
General Purpose Schemas
Social Science Schemas