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Research Data Management

A guide on managing, organising, sharing and preserving research data

What File Names Can Do for You

File names can convey lots of information about their contents. They are the most accessible form of metadata, if they are consistent, logical, descriptive, short and legible. When working on a team project, setting up a file naming convention will save you a lot of trouble.

What can a file name contain?

Any information that is relevant to your project, really:

  • An acronym for the current project or experiment (2-5 letters), so you know what it belongs to
  • A short description of file contents (1-3 words)
  • Information on location or even coordinates, if that is useful
  • A date in a standard format, especially useful for scans of archival documents
  • The initials of a person (researcher or subject)
  • Etc.

These are examples, not obligations: decide what is relevant and what is not when you start creating that file naming system, then document it so other users of your data can understand it quickly.

What Do the Following File Names Tell You?

You can use different file name structures depending on your needs as a social scientist, historian, or even administrative staff. Here are a few examples of file names that make sense in a specific context:

Within the Water Sanitation Project (WSP), this file contains the results of a (yearly?) survey held in 2012 in Apurimac (Perú). It was last edited on July 18, 2015 by Guillaume Pasquier. Based on the file name structure, you can expect other files to contain results to the same survey in different locations.

These are most probably notes taken in a lab meeting on July 12, 2018. The main subject was apparently research data management (RDM). The generic aspect (lab meeting) is placed first, then the date since it is a regular occurrence, and the specific subject comes last.

This is most likely a picture or digitisation of the first page of a letter dated 18 March 1963 from Lyndon B. Johnson to John F. Kennedy. The date is placed first and the page number is placed last so that the researcher can sort documents alphabetically to put them in order.

This illegible file name can only make sense if it is accompanied with a codebook. This documentation will let you understand the detailed information displayed within the file name. In specific cases – such as massive generic file collections –, this approach can make a lot of sense, as long as the naming convention is well-documented.

Various Tips

  • Spaces should be avoided; other options can be used and mixed for readability:
    • UsingCamelCase
    • Or-Using-Hyphens
    • Or_Using_Underscores
  • When numbering files, you should always use multiple digits (eg. 001 rather than 1) to avoid sorting problems
  • When using dates, always use the ISO standard (year first, then month and day): YYYYMMDD. This can be shortened to just the year or year and month depending on your needs and the context
  • You should of course never use special characters such as é!?*&à

Tools You Can Use

The following file-renaming tools can help you apply changes to large batches of files:

Another tool that could be helpful: