Organize your data - file naming


Structure of folders & naming system

Consistent, well-ordered research data will be easier for the research team to find, understand and reuse, now and in the future.Choose and agree on a logical folder/file structure and naming system at the beginning of the project, and use it consistently. Moreover, consider how you will deal with different versions of the same document and keep track of changes when multiple contributors are involved.

According to the UK Data Archive: Good file names can provide useful cues to the content and status of a file, can uniquely identify a file and can help in classifying files. File names can contain project acronyms, researchers’ initials, file type information, a version number, file status information and date.

Some best practices:

• create meaningful but brief names

• use file names to classify broad types of files

• avoid using spaces and special characters

• avoid very long file names

University of Cambridge guidelines on filne naming and organization 

1. How should I organise my files?

Whether you are working on a stand alone computer, or on a networked drive, the need to establish a system that allows you to access your files, avoid duplication, and ensure that your data can be backed up, takes a little planning. A good place to start is to develop a logical folder structure. The following tips should help you develop such a system:

  • Use folders - group files within folders so information on a particular topic is located in one place
  • Adhere to existing procedures - check for established approaches in your team or department which you can adopt
  • Name folders appropriately - name folders after the areas of work to which they relate and not after individual researchers or students. This avoids confusion in shared workspaces if a member of staff leaves, and makes the file system easier to navigate for new people joining the workspace
  • Be consistent – when developing a naming scheme for your folders it is important that once you have decided on a method, you stick to it. If you can, try to agree on a naming scheme from the outset of your research project
  • Structure folders hierarchically - start with a limited number of folders for the broader topics, and then create more specific folders within these
  • Separate ongoing and completed work - as you start to create lots of folders and files, it is a good idea to start thinking about separating your older documents from those you are currently working on
  • Try to keep your ‘My Documents’ folder for files you are actively working on, and every month or so, move the files you are no longer working on to a different folder or location, such as a folder on your desktop, a special archive folder or an external hard drive
  • Backup – ensure that your files, whether they are on your local drive, or on a network drive, are backed up, like in your personal server at UCLouvain.
  • Review records - assess materials regularly or at the end of a project to ensure files are not kept needlessly. Put a reminder in your calendar so you do not forget!

2. What do I need to consider when creating a file name?

Decide on a file naming convention at the start of your project.

Useful file names are:

  • consistent
  • meaningful to you and your colleagues
  • allow you to find the file easily.

It is useful if your department/project agrees on the following elements of a file name:

  • Vocabulary – choose a standard vocabulary for file names, so that everyone uses a common language
  • Punctuation – decide on conventions for if and when to use punctuation symbols, capitals, hyphens and spaces
  • Dates – agree on a logical use of dates so that they display chronologically i.e. YYYY-MM-DD
  • Order - confirm which element should go first, so that files on the same theme are listed together and can therefore be found easily
  • Numbers – specify the amount of digits that will be used in numbering so that files are listed numerically e.g. 01, 002, etc.

3. How should I name my files, so that I know which document is the most recent version?

Very few documents are drafted by one person in one sitting. More often there will be several people involved in the process and it will occur over an extended period of time. Without proper controls this can quickly lead to confusion as to which version is the most recent. Here is a suggestion of one way to avoid this:

  • Use a 'revision' numbering system. Any major changes to a file can be indicated by whole numbers, for example, v01 would be the first version, v02 the second version. Minor changes can be indicated by increasing the decimal figure for example, v01_01 indicates a minor change has been made to the first version, and v03_01 a minor change has been made to the third version.
  • When draft documents are sent out for amendments, upon return they should carry additional information to identify the individual who has made the amendments. Example: a file with the name datav01_20130816_SJ indicates that a colleague (SJ) has made amendments to the first version on the 16th August 2013. The lead author would then add those amendments to version v01 and rename the file following the revision numbering system.
  • Include a 'version control table' for each important document, noting changes and their dates alongside the appropriate version number of the document. If helpful, you can include the file names themselves along with (or instead of) the version number.
  • Agree who will finish finals and mark them as 'final.'

4. The Johnny Decimal technique

If you are further interested in a simple way to organize and find your file back easily, please have a look at the Johnny Decimal Technique.

5. Personal data: 

Store separately:

(1) data that allow to identify the respondent (name, surname, adress, etc) and

(2) other data.

Keep however an unique ID to link both. 

Other resources: The University of Edinburgh, a world leader in research data management, has developed best practices for naming that are widely used. They are available on their website: