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Research Data Management (old April 2019): Describing

Guidance and support to staff, researchers and students at the University of Southampton

Describing your data for effective reuse

In this section you will find guidance on how to describe your data, often referred to as metadata, so that it can be more easily located in the future and improve the opportunity for reuse in further research work.  Find out more about:

  • The reasons for documenting your data as fully as possible for various purposes of reuse
  • How to name and link all relevant files so that a complete dataset is available to other researchers, and can be correctly described when cited in future publications
  • Check the levels and types of metadata according to source format, specific requirements of funders, and academic disciplinary metadata.
  • Useful Links including General guidance, metadata standards and training resources are also available.

Why describe my data?

By describing and documenting your data you will be able to
  • return to data created earlier in a project and be reminded of what work or processes have been applied to the data. 
  • revise or review the data should you need to do so
  • extend your original work at a later date
  • allow others to add to your work rather than repeating it. 

How will my research data be used? This will depend on the type of data and any requirements, or restrictions, placed on you by funders, ethical or commercial considerations.  UK funding councils and others are increasingly requiring details of how and where data will be shared, while acknowledging some limitations need to be imposed for reasons of commercial interest or confidentiality.

Three kinds of data reuse

1. Author consultation and reuse: the data must be meaningfully named and located  so that the originator of the data can find and use it on any future occasion. Use Document properties tools to describe MSOffice files

2. Non-author consultation: for other researchers to access your work, the metadata must be consistent and discoverable, and assigned according to international standards where these exist, for example, Dublin Core or Data Documentation Initiative.Allowing others to see your work gives credit to you, your research team, and your institution.

3. Non-author reuse:the most open  form of reuse, enabling other researchers to replicate/develop/enhance your data in their own research. Increasingly required by funders, and means that the data must be completely and consistently described. For example, the OECD requires publicly funded data to be openly available to the scientific community.

See the Research Councils UK Common Principles on Data Policy.

For further guidance see our section on Funder Expectations.

What is metadata?

Metadata are a subset of core data documentation, which provides standardised structure information that explains:

  • the origin
  • purpose
  • time references
  • geographic location
  • creator
  • access conditions
  • terms of use

of a data collection (UK Data Archive).

The detail and range of the metadata for any research file is in part dependent on the subject, format, and intended reuse:
  • The creation of metadata for the various elements of a project, and for the project as a whole is essential - there must be evidence that the project data is both findable and usable
  • The simplest form of metadata is assigned through meaningful filenames and use of the document properties and tag option in programs such as Word and Excel.
  • At the file level, metadata must include a comprehensive description that enables replication: this varies between disciplines and file type: see the comprehensive overview from the MRC
  • At the resource level, metadata is required for linked files that form part of a complete project, which requires an additional level of metadata: a general overview is available from the Archaeology Data Service

Why do you need metadata?

Creating metadata is good research practice and enables you to keep track your own work.  Depositing your metadata with your data will also enable others to discover and understand your data.

For further resources see our section on Metadata Standards and Training