Skip to Main Content  

Research Building Blocks: Keeping your Files Organized

It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Avalanche of Stuff

whirlwind of papers and books

Any research project is going to involve managing published literature and background information, data collection and analysis tools and files, and numerous versions of abstracts, manuscripts, diagrams, charts, tables, etc. - an avalanche of files and documents, possibly both electronic and hard-copy.  

To save on headaches, or the nightmare of permanently lost data, it is important for research teams to plan how they are going to manage their files and documents before there is so much that organizing it is hopeless.  

Naming Your Files

In order to quickly and easily find the correct file when you need it, it is important to be thoughtful and consistent when choosing file names.  Your team will find it helpful to establish and stick to some rules for file naming and organization - it is a good idea to save a copy of the rules in a prominent place so that team members can refresh their memories easily when they need to save new files.  

Here are some rules that are nearly universally useful for file naming:

  • Be consistent - having established rules will not help unless you use them
  • Make them meaningful - the file name should tell you which version of what information/data/content is in the file.  PRISMA_flowchart.doc is much less helpful than PRISMA_flowchart_post_dedup_20190319.doc - the first could be a template, a completed flowchart or anything in-between, the second is the flowchart updated after deduplication on March 19, 2019.  Exactly what information needs to be included in the file name will depend on the team, the project, the type of file, where it is being saved, and a number of other factors. The default file names for downloaded pdfs, files exported from databases, etc. are never meaningful - if you need to keep them, rename them before you save. 
  • Control your vocabulary - if your team wants to be able to search your files, it is important that "same" things are called "same" things.  For example, if one interview transcript is called intvw_sub5_20180625 and another is called transcript_interview_subject_10, then neither searching for intvw nor transcript nor interview will find them both.  Agree ahead of time what words or short forms to use and list them in the rules.  As new things that you hadn't thought of need to be named, add those words or short forms to the rules as well. 
  • Control the order of words and short-forms - if your team wants to be able to sort your files by name, it is important to decide ahead of time how you want things to group together when they are sorted.  In the example used in "Control your vocabulary" sorting files by name will neither group the transcripts together, nor group files by the date they were created.  On the other hand, if they were named intvw_transc_sub05_20180625 and intvw_transc_sub10_20180715, sorting would put all of the interview transcripts together and order them by subject number. Agree ahead of time how you would like things to group when you sort by file name, and add it to the rules.  As new things that you hadn't thought of need to be named, decide how it would make sense for them to sort and add those to the rules as well. 
  • Plan for moving things out of their folders - if you are using a nesting folder system, you still need meaningful, unique file names.  When you need to reorganize, share or email a file you want to make sure that the file name still makes sense, doesn't write over another file, and still can be sorted and/or searched.  
  • Never add FINAL to the file name - as soon as you do, something will come up that will mean you have to update one more time, and then either the most "final" file will not be the one with FINAL in the name, or more than one file will say FINAL.  

The links below have more detailed information about naming and organizing files that you can adapt to your project and circumstances.  

Managing files when working in a team

Multiple people independently working with the same files opens up potential for duplicating files, for overwriting each other's work, and for never knowing which version is the most current file.  When more than one person needs to use a collection of files there are extra considerations to take into account to prevent data catastrophes, for instance: 

  • Where can the team access the files? 
    • Shared drive?  Cloud drive options?  
    • Some filetypes and software do not work from shared and/or cloud drives, what about those files?
    • Keep in mind privacy concerns - how secure is the place the team is saving their data?
  • Will everyone have permission to edit every document/file?
    • If so how does everyone want to avoid overwriting, re-doing, or overlooking each-other's work?
      • A check-out, check-in system, so that only one person can work on something at a time?
      • A system in which everyone creates a new copy of the file they are working on and saves it using specific file naming conventions, followed by version consolidation?
    • If not, who has control of which files, and how will the team communicate and keep track of edits and contributions by the rest of the team?

Electronic and/or Paper

If you have both hard-copy and electronic files, make sure you use the same system to manage both:

  • Use the same naming conventions for computer folders and file-folders. 
  • Where possible, identify paper items using the same naming conventions as computer files.

In order to avoid losing track of files, or repeating your work, you will also need to either plan how you will know which items are in paper and which are electronic, or plan how you will make sure that there is at least one place where everything has been organized in the same place. Examples: 

  • Create and maintain a document everyone can access that has a list of every item, electronic or hardcopy, with a record of where it can be found.
  • Set and keep a rule requiring everyone to scan and save anything hardcopy electronically, using agreed upon naming conventions.

Build in Retention

While you are choosing where and how to store and organize your files, keep in mind Retention requirements.

Backup your Backups

Every file of any importance is worth creating backups of.  This includes works-in-progress, background literature, raw and processed data, and completed manuscripts.  Backups will save the team hours and hours of work and stress in the event of either human error, like someone accidentally saving a blank template over a completed application form, or technological failure, like your EndNote library crashing and needing to be rebuilt.  Here are some tips for backing up your files:

  • Have a naming rule for back-up files so that you know which version of which item the file is a backup for, and so that no one starts working off of the backup instead of the active file.
  • Save at least one back-up of everything in a different location or drive than the originals, that way if something happens to the drive the active files are saved in the back-ups should still be okay.
  • Establish and consistently hold to a rule that every time a significant amount of work has been done on a file a new back-up is made, that way if something happens to the active file there will be less work to re-do. 
  • For any files using software that does not have an "undo" function, get in the habit of creating a backup before and after making any substantial changes, so that your "before" backup can be your "undo" if needed.