Organizing and Managing Information 

Organizing your research is as important as organizing your citations. Unlike citations that must follow your discipline’s style guide, file naming and management is a personal practice. A strong file management system, on your chosen storage media, can save time and frustration when searching for specific articles or data sets. Consider the following tips from our friends at MIT Libraries Data Management Services.

Key principles of file organization

  • Spending a little time upfront, can save a lot of time later on.
  • Be realistic: strike a balance between doing too much and too little.
  • There’s no single right way to do it; establish a system that works for you.
  • Think about who your system needs to work for: Just you? You and your lab group? Collaborators?[1]

The 5 C’s of file organization

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Consistent
  • Correct
  • Conformant[2]

A Word on File Naming

Naming files can be critical to rediscovering them one, five, or ten years from now. Once you establish a structure that works, stick with it. Some disciplines even have conventions for file naming and files themselves can often be “tagged” with keywords so that you (or someone else) can find them. Below are some strategies to employ when beginning a new project:

File naming and folder hierarchy

Keeping track of research data and documentation is critical. Strategies include:
  • Spend time planning out both folder hierarchy and file naming conventions in the beginning of a project. Consider how you or others will look for and access files at a later date. Do you think about them by type, location, study or something else?
  • Establish a folder hierarchy that aligns with the project. Example: [Project] / [Experiment] / [Instrument or Type of file]
  • Consider all aspects of the project and develop a file naming scheme that includes important metadata. Example: [Date]_[Run]_[SampleType]
  • Consider sorting when deciding what element of the file name will go first. File names starting with YYYYMM will sort differently than files starting with the MMDDYYYY format.
  • Provide a method for easy adoption. Consider a shared dropbox with the folder hierarchy in place and a readme file in onboarding documentation for new contributors.
  • Check for established file naming conventions. Many disciplines have recommendations, for example: DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) program.[3]

  1. MIT Libraries Data Management. RES.STR-002 Data Management. Spring 2016. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.
  2. ibid.
  3. MIT Libraries Data Management Services. (n.d.) File naming and folder hierarchy. License: Creative Commons BY-NC


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PSU Extension Research Resources Handbook by Creative Commons Licensing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.