Working with your research data

Guidance on organising and naming files, version control, documenting your work, storing and backing up your data, and working with project partners.

Organising and naming files

The best time to decide how to organise and name your files is at the start of a project. Choosing consistent naming conventions and establishing logical folder structures will help you and your collaborators to locate, retrieve, and keep track of data. Good file organisation should apply to both electronic and physical research material.

  • Structure folders hierarchically - consider using folders for broad topics at the highest level and specific sub-folders within these. Try not to nest folders too deep and avoid having too many subfolders at each level.
  • Establish naming conventions - consider how you will name folders and files in a concise yet meaningful manner. Decide on the format and order of the following elements in a file name: vocabulary/terms, abbreviations, punctuation, dates, numbers and versioning.
  • Use version control - consider how you will distinguish between different versions of your files and data. If you are manually controlling the versions, decide whether you will use a revision numbering system in the file name or version control tables. It is also helpful to agree who will finish final versions and mark them as 'final'. Alternatively, the software you are using may already offer version control facilities or you may be able to install other specialised version control software to automate versioning for your files.
  • Be consistent - once you have agreed on a file structure and appropriate naming conventions, make sure you stick to them. These rules will only be as effective as your ability (and that of your collaborators and project partners) to consistently follow them.
  • Review materials regularly - consider setting aside a small amount of time to tidy up your files on a regular basis (eg moving completed work to an archive folder). If your project changes along the way, you may need to reassess your folder structure and adapt this accordingly so that it is still appropriate for the type of research being carried out.
  • Choose suitable file formats - consider how easy it will be to convert your final dataset to an open or standard file format for long-term preservation. The UK Data Archive provides a list of optimal data formats (page 12).

Documenting data

Adopting good documentation practices at the start of a project will help ensure the integrity of your datasets. At the end of the project, such documentation will help make your research data discoverable, understandable, and reusable by yourself and others. Ideally, the documentation should include contextual information about the research and data creation processes, as well as data-level descriptions and annotations. Where appropriate, the documentation files should be kept with the data files to aid interpretation and understanding. In cases with anonymised data, the coding key should be kept separately to maintain participant confidentiality.

Data-level (embedded) documentation

Information about a file or dataset contained within the data or document itself. This covers descriptions and annotations that are embedded in a data file such as:

  • Field and label descriptions.
  • Explanation of codes or classification schemes.
  • Descriptive headers or summaries.

The UK Data Archive provides detailed examples of data-level documentation for structured tabular data and qualitative data.

Study-level (supporting) documentation

Separate files that accompany data in order to provide an overview of the research context and design, data collection methods, data preparation, and results or findings may include information on the context of data collection and methods used, structure of files, data sources used, or validation methods. This information is usually not embedded in a data file. Some examples of study-level documentation are:

  • Working papers or laboratory books.
  • Questionnaires designs or interview guides.
  • Final project reports and publications.

In some cases, the supporting documentation may require digitising before it can be included alongside the digital research datasets. Examples of digitisation processes include scanning a handwritten laboratory notebook or transcribing an audio recording.

Catalogue Metadata

Metadata for online catalogues are often structured according to international standards or schemes. Repositories or data centres use this metadata to facilitate identification and discovery of the data. This structured information captures details about the purpose, origin, creator, access conditions, and terms of use of a research dataset. Examples of metadata fields include:

  • Title.
  • Description.
  • Abstract.
  • Creator.
  • Geographic location.
  • Keywords.

The Digital Curation Centre maintains a comprehensive list of disciplinary metadata standards.

Storing data

Choosing the right way to store your data will help you work more flexibly and efficiently. Where possible, only store what you need to keep. Researchers need to make a judgement about the most appropriate solution for their particular data, including whether it is necessary to hold more than one copy of a dataset.

The UWE Bristol research data security guidance should be consulted for all research projects involving the collection, disposal or preservation of data.

The UK Data Archive provides useful guidance to help inform a data storage strategy, including how to choose file formats and storage media.

Some common data storage solutions include:

Networked drives

By default, UWE Bristol IT Services provide researchers with 1GB of personal storage (H: Drive) and shared faculty centralised storage space (S: Drive). For an extra charge, the size of both networked drives can be increased. Contact the IT Service Desk for pricing information.

To ensure the security and integrity of data stored on the S: Drive, it is advisable to set up a restricted access area with the relevant access levels for authorised staff members. If you are working offsite, you can access UWE Bristol networked drives remotely via the eXternal Access system (XA). This avoids the need to store any data on a local computer.

SharePoint sites

If data needs to be shared with multiple collaborators (either externally or across faculties), researchers can request for a SharePoint site to be set up with the appropriate permissions Our working with project partners guidance lists the benefits of using SharePoint.

Contact the IT Service Desk for assistance with setting up a SharePoint site.

Local drives and removable media

Data and files can be stored on UWE Bristol-owned removable media. These should always be password-protected, encrypted if the data is particularly sensitive, and the relevant devices/media kept in a secure location. Research data should never be stored on personal (ie not UWE Bristol-owned) devices.

Cloud storage

UWE Bristol provides staff with an additional 1TB of storage space on OneDrive for Business (intranet only). Students also have access to OneDrive for Business. With OneDrive for Business, you can easily access work files on the move and share documents with external collaborators. It is important to note that UWE Bristol has no control over commercially provided cloud-based storage (for example, Dropbox, Google Drive) which may often host data outside the EEA. It is therefore important that you do not use other third-party cloud-based storage for research data that contains personal or sensitive information .

With external cloud based storage, you should be aware that the company hosting your data will have access to all the material and in some cases may even have the right to use or publish your data. There may also be an increased data security risk if you are in the habit of accessing the commercial cloud storage via multiple devices.

UWE Bristol's research governance team provide guidance around research data security, including the storage of physical copies of research data.

If you are working with NHS data, particularly identifiable patient information, you should be aware of extra restrictions on where and how you are permitted to store the data.

Backing up data

Making regular backups of your research data can help protect against accidental or malicious data loss. Choosing what to back up and when will depend on the quantity and type of data that your research generates.

The UK Data Archive provides useful guidance on things to consider when choosing a backup procedure, including how often to back up and the type of media to use.

Restrictions on backup and storage locations may apply if the data contains personal information or is of a confidential nature. The working with project partners section provides links to useful data-protection resources.

The University central storage areas (SharePoint, H and S drives, OneDrive for Business) provide the best place to keep your information secure and safe because:

  • They are backed up regularly. If you accidentally delete a file, it could be recovered from a backup. Note this will depend on when the file was deleted.
  • They allow you to remotely access your files.
  • They allow files to be accessed only by the individuals that need them.
  • OneDrive for Business provides you with the ability to share files with authorised non-UWE Bristol staff.

Avoid

  • Storing files on local drives (a drive installed inside of or connected to your computer). They may not be backed up or secure.
  • Using other cloud storage services (for example, DropBox). The UWE Bristol cloud storage service is OneDrive for Business, it is secure and supported by IT Services.
  • Using external hard drives, USB drives or other external storage. These are not backed up and easily lost. If you must use external storage, encrypt the device before use.

Further information can be found as follows:

  • The File Storage intranet guide explains where you should store the files you use for your work at UWE Bristol. The storage services included here are supported by IT Services. They are secure, backed up and compliant with our data protection and information security obligations.
  • IT Services guidance regarding secure storage and encryption.

Working with project partners

Group access and file sharing within or between projects can get complicated, especially when research partners are based in different institutions.

A clear plan for file sharing will help you simplify the process and limit data risks. The plan should include putting in place appropriate data sharing agreements before transmitting information to external project partners. The Commercial Services team can help staff with setting up the appropriate collaboration agreements. Contact information can be found on the staff intranet.

The UK Data Archive provides an overview of different file sharing options. The easiest way to share files and folders is to use OneDrive for Business provided by UWE Bristol. OneDrive for Business allows you to maintain full control of the documents that you share with other UWE colleagues and external collaborators. Access to the data can be customised and you can easily work on files with project partners at the same time. The data is stored securely within the SharePoint environment.

Another alternative to file sharing is to use a SharePoint site because:

  • The transfer of data over the internet is encrypted.
  • Access to the data is controlled via username and password, and limited to data for which the users have been given explicit permission.
  • If data needs to be transferred to a non-UWE Bristol member of staff, a temporary user account can be requested via the IT Service Desk.

If you are sharing personal or confidential data, it is important to ensure the relevant participant consent has been obtained and that the appropriate data-processing agreements are in place.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there are restrictions as to where personal or confidential data can be stored. In most cases, such data should not leave the EEA. For more information on data-processing agreements and outsourcing data to a third party, refer to the research data security guidance provided by UWE Bristol's Research Governance Team.

Protect data and devices in the Information Security Toolkit (intranet only) outlines data-protection guidelines for staff and students engaged in research at UWE Bristol. Contact the Data Protection and Records Management Officer at dataprotection@uwe.ac.uk for specific guidance on data protection issues.