Data Documentation and Metadata

Getting the basics down

  • Who? Who contributed to the project (authors, research assistants, etc.)?
  • What? What kind(s) of data and analysis were used?
  • When? When was the data collected? When was analysis performed? Any other pertinent dates?
  • Where? Does the project involve a particular geographic area, such as the state of Minnesota, or the Twin Cities, or Antarctica?
  • Why? What is the impetus for the project? What questions are you trying to answer?

Getting a little more in-depth

Imagine that you have to leave the project as is for a couple months and then come back to it. What are the most important aspects of the project you'd need help remembering? Some examples:

  • file handling (how are they named, how are they divided)
  • processing steps (how to get from point A to B)
  • field abbreviation/name glossary (now what does ABC3130 stand for again?)

Now imagine if you had to leave the project and come back after six months or a year. What else would you add to the list?

Need Help? Download an example Readme.txt (plain text file) template that can be adapted for your data.

Standardizing your documentation

With the “raw material” documenting your project down, the next step is to standardize the formatting. The standard to use depends on the discipline and/or format of your data. A few standards are listed below. Again this isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but rather descriptive.

Type of DataDiscipline/sStandard
----Social and Behavioral SciencesData Documentation Initiative (DDI)
----EcologyEcological Metadata Language (EML)
Spatial----Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata (CSDGM)/FGDC/ISO 19115
BiodiversityLife SciencesDarwin Core

A more comprehensive list of disciplinary metadata standards is available from the Digital Curation Centre.

Special thanks to Wendy Kozlowski at Cornell University for inspiration from their "Guide to writing 'readme' style metadata." Cornell Research Data Management Service Group. http://data.research.cornell.edu/content/readme. Retrieved 22/10/14.

Need help?

Contact Us with your questions and we will consult with you or point you to the right person, resource, or service on campus.