Preventing loss and corruption
Files can be lost accidentally in many different ways. Even if they are not lost completely, they can occasionally become corrupted. If a file is severely corrupted it may be unusable, but even subtle corruption may introduce errors which go unnoticed while affecting the outcome of your research.
There are many 'right' ways of organising your files so think about what makes sense for your research. You also need to ensure that you keep enough information to interpret the data.
If for example you're doing experimental work, you might want to organise the results into folders by the date you conducted the experiment or by a key experimental condition. For a small number of files, longer, more descriptive titles can be useful. (But don't go crazy: try to keep the whole name on the screen). If you have a large number of files to manage, check out this guide to file naming from JISC Digital Media.
However you choose to arrange your files, make sure you write down what you've decided in an index file. (A Word or text document is great for this index file, that you keep along side the other files). This only takes a few minutes, but can save hours of searching later. You many need to update your index file as your research develops. Edinburgh University have produced a guide on naming electronic files.
If it's never happened to you, you'd be amazed how quickly data becomes unusable because key details of the context have been forgotten. Whatever you need to make sense of your data, you should keep this with the data files themselves. This could be reactant concentrations and temperatures, details of how a sample was chosen.
For lab-based research, this is often recorded in the lab notebook, so make sure this is kept safe. Record the lab notebook page number with the data files, and if possible, scan the page(s) in and keep them with the data too. Even if you're not based in a lab, you may have a research journal that you can use in the same way.
This information also helps when deciding ownership and assigning credit, so make sure you keep a note of who collected the data and when, especially if it's not you. If it's relevant for your research, you should also keep safe copies of any legal documentation, such as consent forms or COSSH forms. Your research group, lab or department may have an existing filing system for this, so ask your supervisor.
Introduction to Metadata, with a festive theme (Scientific American)
Documenting your data (UK Data Archive)
Documentation and Metadata (MIT Libraries)
Metadata for Data Management (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Research data exist in many different forms: textual, numerical, databases, geospatial, images, audio-visual recordings, and data generated by machines or instruments. Digital data exists in specific file formats which are coded so that a software programme can read and interpret these data.
Using standard and interchangeable or open lossless data formats ensures longer-term usability of data. For longterm preservation, digital data is converted to such formats.
Data files should be clearly named, well organised, structured and quality and version controlled throughout the research. It is vital to develop suitable procedures before data gathering starts in order to adhere to any conventions, instructions, guidelines or templates that will help to ensure quality and consistency across a data collection.
See the UK Data Service for more information.
Not all research data is digital. Most researchers keep hand-written laboratory notebooks, journals and other materials which are not kept on a computer at all.
Anything stored on paper can be scanned fairly easily: find out how to scan directly to your University storage using any of the managed printers on campus (Library). If it's not easy to scan, you could try taking a digital photo, but check the quality of the image to make sure you can use it if you lose the original.
Audio recordings can easily be turned into digital sound files, if the sound content is important, or transcribed if only the words are needed. You can do this yourself, or employ a professional transcription service if you have a lot of recordings to digitise.
Other materials can also be digitised, with varying degrees of difficulty. If the data or artefact absolutely cannot be digitised for some reason, you should make sure that it's protected some other way. A fireproof safe could be a good investment. Find out more about how to digitalise your data via the UK Data Service and this helpful guide.