Make your data count

Collecting and organising your data

  • You may have planned your data management strategy down to the last detail and cleared all of the ethical issues and intellectual property rights, but if you don’t organise your data properly on a day-to-day basis, there is always a risk that you won’t be able to find things when you need them.  
  • Likewise, if you don’t document your data, you may not be able to understand why exactly you recorded what you did, or how your data was derived when you come back to it in future. If you are planning on sharing your data at any point, then documentation is especially important.  
  • Take a look at the software and web services available to you. It’s worth investing a little time ensuring that you are using the most appropriate tools for structuring and working with the information you are gathering. Colleagues can be a useful source of recommendations – ask them what they use.
  • When using web-based tools or services to collect data (online survey platforms, for example, or video conferencing tools for interviews), you need to ensure that these offer adequate security, and that data is stored in a way that allows the University to meet its data protection obligations.
    • This typically means that the service should have been approved by the University’s Information Security team for the sort of data involved, and that the service will not transfer data outside the UK or the European Economic Area unless the appropriate procedure has been followed.

Questions to consider

  • What do I need to consider when choosing a file name?

    • It’s generally useful to aim for file names which are concise, but informative – it makes life easier if you can tell what’s in a file without having to open it.
    • Similarly, being consistent in your file naming practices will make it easier to locate the file you want. Within a research group, you may want to agree on file naming conventions early on in the project
    • Operating systems usually default to sorting files alphabetically, so it can be helpful to think about what comes at the start of the file name – is it more useful to order the files by date, by author, or by subject, for example?
    • If you have multiple versions or drafts of a file, it can also be useful to include a version number in the file name – this makes it straightforward to see which copy is the most recent one.
  • What about file structures? What tips are there for developing a system?

    • Most operating systems default to a hierarchical file structure – files inside folders, which may be nested inside other folders. This great if your material can easily be grouped into relatively discrete categories.
    • In planning a hierarchical folder structure, aim for a balance between breadth and depth – so no one category gets too big, but also so that you don’t have to click through endless folders to find a file.
    • In some cases, it may be more helpful to use a tag-based system – where each file is assigned one or more tags, or labels. This makes it easier to have overlapping categories, and files can be categorised in multiple ways simultaneously (by subject, by author, and by the project it relates to, for example).
      • The more recent versions of the Windows and Mac operating systems both allow you to add tags to files; file tagging software is also available.
    • It’s worth taking time every now and then to reassess your folder or tag structure, perhaps moving old, unused items to a folder called ‘Archive’ or something similar so they don’t clutter up the screen.
  • What are documentation and metadata, and why should I consider creating them?

    • Good documentation makes material understandable, verifiable, and reusable (by you or by others).
    • It includes all the contextual information needed to help a future user interpret it properly – for example, information about when, why, and by whom the data was created, what methods were used, and explanation of acronyms, coding, or jargon.
    • It is good practice (and in the long run, much easier) to begin documenting your data at the start of your research project and to continue to add information as the project progresses.  You should also include procedures for documentation in your data planning activities.
    • Metadata is simply ‘data about data’.  It is related to the broader contextual information that describes your data, but is usually more structured in that it conforms to set standards and is machine readable.  One typical use of metadata is to create a catalogue record for a dataset held in an archive. By using a standard set of tags, an automatic system can tell where the information about the title, creator, description and so forth begin and end.
    • The UK Data Service provides an overview of this topic.
    • Support staff from the Bodleian Libraries and IT Services can offer expert help in data modelling and in creating metadata for description, discovery and preservation.  Please contact us for further information.
  • What is reference management software?

    • Reference management software can be used to store details of all the articles, books, and other sources you make use of in your research, and to automatically generate citations in written work.
    • You can also use reference management software to store copies of articles (usually as PDFs), and to record your own notes. Some software packages offer additional features, such as the ability to annotate PDFs.
    • Popular reference managers include EndNote, RefWorks, Mendeley, Zotero, and Colwiz.
  • What online survey tools are available to me via the University? What else do I need to think about?

    • Two online survey platforms are available free of charge to all members of the University: Jisc Online Surveys and Microsoft Forms (part of the Nexus365 suite of tools).
      • These have both been assessed by the University’s Information Security team, and are deemed suitable for use with confidential data.
      • They also both store data in a way that is GDPR-compliant.
    • The Medical Sciences Division runs an instance of the survey platform REDCap. This is available to members of the division for a small annual charge.
    • A few departments around the University have subscriptions to other survey platforms (for example Qualtrics) for the use of their members. Consult your local admin staff, research support staff, or IT officer to find out what is available to you.

    If you need to use a survey tool other than those provided by the University, a Third Party Security Assessment should be completed. A handful of survey tools (including Qualtrics and SmartSurvey) have already been through this process, and are deemed suitable for use with confidential data.

    Note that selecting an appropriately secure survey tool is only the first step: the survey also needs to be conducted in a way that is GDPR-compliant. See the Staff Guidance on Data Protection web pages for more information.

    The Research Support team in IT Services runs a Survey Advice Service, which can help with selecting a survey tool, data protection questions, and basic feedback on surveys.

  • Which video conferencing platform should I use for research interviews?

    • Microsoft Teams is the University’s recommended video conferencing platform. It has been assessed by the University’s Information Security team, and is deemed suitable for confidential material.
      • Note that you can invite people outside the University to a Teams meeting even if they don’t have a Microsoft account or the Teams app: it is possible to send them a link which can be used to join a meeting via a web browser.
    • The Information Security team has provided some guidelines on the use of Zoom. Please not that Zoom is not recommended for calls which involve (or might involve) confidential material.
    • If you need to use another platform, a Third Party Security Assessment should be carried out.


Tools, resources, and training - Organising, structuring, and analysing data

Electronic Lab Notebooks

ELNs provide secure collaboration with fellow researchers for the collection and management of research data.
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Organising Data

An interactive training module in the MANTRA course, also covering versioning, and file naming.
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File Formats and Transformation

An interactive training module in the MANTRA course, covering file formatting and data transformation.
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Data Handling Tutorials

Practical exercises using SPSS, R, ArcGIS, and NVivo. Provided by MANTRA.
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IT Services Research Support

Advice and support for all technical aspects of the research process, including data management.
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IT Learning Centre

A wide selection of courses, covering a range of digital skills and software packages.
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LinkedIn Learning

A huge library of IT training videos, available free of charge to University of Oxford members.
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Jisc Online Surveys

A user-friendly web-based tool for creating, distributing, and analysing surveys.
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Microsoft Forms

An easy-to-use web-based tool for creating and sharing forms, surveys, and quizzes.
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Format Your Data

Good practice advice from the UK Data Service. covering file formats, data organisation, and versioning.
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Advanced Research Computing

A central resource available to any University of Oxford researcher who needs high performance computing.
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Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School

An annual week-long training event focusing on digital humanities.
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Tools, resources, and training - Documentation and metadata