Managing research data well can feel like an overwhelming task, so it’s important to start small. It’s much easier to make several small changes over time than to change the whole system at once.
One of the easier and more helpful changes you can make in the laboratory is to utilize consistent file naming. A file naming convention add standardization to your files, making them easier to organize and locate. It will also help your coworkers sort through your files should you fall ill or leave your job; your naming scheme should be documented in your laboratory notebook (preferably at the front or back for easy access) for this reason.
There are a lot of conventions available for you to choose from, though you will probably want to customize one for your own purposes. Here are a few general tips for naming files:
- Files should be named consistently
- Files names should be descriptive but short (<25 characters)
- Use underscores instead of spaces
- Avoid these characters: “ / \ : * ? ‘ < > [ ] & $
- Date your files using the convention YYYY-MM-DD
I think that dating your files is one of the best ways to help organize your data, particularly because paper lab notebooks are organized by date. So if you have only the file, you can look at the date in its name and immediately know where to search for the corresponding notes in your notebook. (You can also reinforce this file-notebook connection by organizing your computer’s folders with reference to each notebook.)
- For analyzed data, use version numbers
- Save files often to a new version
- Label the final version FINAL
Versioning can be imminently helpful when you are manipulating data. If you make a change to your data that you don’t want to keep, it’s simple to go back to an earlier version of the file. The same is true if a file gets corrupted or if you simply want to change your analysis method. The key to making versioning work is being consistent with version names, periodically saving to new versions, and documenting the differences between versions.
These are some general thoughts on file naming. Feel free to leave a comment about a system that has worked well for you!