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Data Management

Resources in documenting, storing and preserving research data

Use Descriptive File Names

  • Create file names that express a file’s unique content (e.g. information such as creator/owner/editor, project title, location, date, version number, file type, etc.)
  • When deciding the first element of a file name, think about how you anticipate sorting files in your computer’s file manager; for example, if date is the first element of the file name, consider that MMDDYYYY and YYYYMM will sort differently
  • Try to use lower-case letters
  • Avoid the use of spaces and special characters; instead use underscores (_) or dashes (-) as delimiters 
Here is an example of a descriptive file name for a Biology 101 class syllabus:


smith is the professor’s last name

bio101 is the abbreviated course name

syllabus represents the main file content

2017 is the calendar year

.pdf stands for the file type— portable document format

Note the use of lower-case characters and underscores as delimiters.

Plan File Hierarchy

  • The file hierarchy should logically align with the project at hand
  • It helps to think about how you would search for files if you were not associated with the project—would you starting by looking at dates; at topics; at creators? The answer to these questions will affect best choices for your file hierarchy.

Let’s think about the smith_bio101_syllabus_2017.pdf document. I might organize the directory tree like this:

smith → 2017 →  biology→101 → smith_bio101_syllabus_2017.pdf

Let’s assume that “smith” is the professor’s name, and the name of our home directory. I chose 2017 (year) and department (biology) as the top-most layers, because these categories are broad and generally constant. On the other hand, course number (101) and accompanying materials (such as syllabi) may be subject to change. The professor may not teach 101 every year, or the topics taught in 101 may shift.

Note that the file hierarchy repeats some of the metadata in the syllabus file name (smith_bio101_syllabus_2017.pdf). Although this may seem redundant, it is good practice to include all key information in a file name. A good file name allows users to understand a file’s contents with having to rely on context (such as file hierarchy), which might be problematic when sharing materials.