Top 5 Data Management Tips for Undergraduates


by Cameron Cook

With fall well under way on campus and final projects just around the corner,  it’s the perfect time to review our top five data management tips for undergrads! As an undergraduate, data management may not seem important, but giving it a few moments of your day will ensure your assignments are safe – even in the face of a hard drive meltdown the night before a due date.

If keeping your final projects safe isn’t enough of an incentive, there is one more. You have undergraduate publishing opportunities. As you learn and grow as a researcher, you can publish your work in a number of undergraduate research journals. Practicing good data management will help keep your research reproducible, understandable, findable, and organized for when you submit your work to a journal.


1 ) Clear, consistent file naming and structure

Or know where your data lives. Keep file names simple, short, but descriptive. Include dates (in a standardized format) to version your files so that you can always go back to a previous copy in case of mistakes. Keep files in a consistent, clear structure with easy to follow labels (this may be date, file type, instrument or analysis type) so that you will never misplace an important file.

2) Give it context

This may seem simple, but it is key. Include a readme file with your data. A readme is a text file that describes important context for you data – i.e. names and contact information the creators of the files, list of the files and their relationships to one another, limitations of the work, funding sources, or licensing or publishing information. If your data and work were separated from you, this file would help another researcher understand your work.


3) UW provided Google or storage tools

Have you actually read your terms of agreement? I can’t stress this one enough. It’s important to know what your rights are when you’re using provided services. The tools provided to you through UW ensure extra layers of protection for the content you upload that simply aren’t there when you use the tool normally. Here are the differences between  Google’s terms and UW Google Apps’ terms, I suggest reading them and always reading any terms of agreement before you hit ‘accept’.


4) Open file formats

It’s easy to save documents in proprietary formats when you’re using a company’s software. Especially when a particular software dominates the market. But, saving a file in open formats (txt, tif, csv, etc.) help prevent conversion and sharing issues down the road. Technology changes quickly, use the most widely accepted formats for your files.


5)  Rule of 3

This may be hard as a student with limited resources for storage. But if you can, try to practice 3-2-1. 3 copies of your data, in 2 different locations, on more than 1 type of storage hardware. This may seem excessive, but it can help protect you from the perfect storm of hardware malfunctions or physical accidents like flooding. UW offers Box and a number of other storage options depending on whether you are storing personal data or university data.


This post is sourced from a talk originally given to UW-Madison Biocore undergraduate students. View the slides on Speakerdeck. If you would like us to speak to your students or lab, please contact us!