Basic approach to metadata

Data services staff are happy to help you devise a plan for documenting your research with metadata. Read more about our consulting services.

Collect experimental data

In all likelihood, you are already capturing the necessary metadata about your research. Your lab notebooks and research files hold much if not all of this information, such as:

  • Researcher name
  • Date
  • Project
  • Details of the experiment/analysis being run, including the purpose and methods used
  • Sources of other data used in the experiment/analysis

The key is to collect all the necessary information (metadata) as you work and then link that metadata to the data files themselves.

If you are the only person using these data, the metadata may not need to be highly structured in order to be useful. However, the metadata should be fairly complete. This will help you later in referring back to these files. It will also make the future structuring of your metadata into a formalized standard easier and less painful.

Track metadata 

Consider one or more of these methods for tracking metadata and data files:

  • Keep a paper notebook with information about your projects, noting the locations and names of digital files associated with individual experiments.
  • Keep a digital notebook with information about your projects with embedded hyperlinks to the relevant data files.
  • Include a note in each data file that indicates the location of metadata.
  • In each folder on your computer that contains research data, include a text file that describes the contents of the files in that folder, including explanations of abbreviations and column headers in the files. You might also want to include references to publications that describe the data.

You may not need your metadata to be very structured in order to understand the contents of your files right now. However, including as much structure as you can may help you better or more quickly understand the data in the future. It will also help others understand your data without requiring assistance or explanations directly from you.

Add structure to your data

You can add structure to your metadata by creating fields that meet your immediate needs and storing the metadata in a text file. Below is one example of some basic structured information about a particular experiment. This tabular structure could easily be stored as a .csv file.

Researcher Jane Doe
Project Analysis of the ubiquitin-mediated degradation of S. cerevisiae SIC1p
Experiment Western blog to verify expression of GAL-SIC1p-HA fragments following galactose induction
Date March 15, 1997
Induction Time 3 hours
Induction Temperature 30 C
Background Strain EY957
Background Strain Source John Smith
Antibody 3F10
Antibody Source Boehringer-Mannheim
Detector Molecular Dynamics Storm 860 phosphorimager


Basic metadata case study

Hopkins weather station, photo by Joe Wible, used with permissionView the basic metadata case study for a real-life example of different types of metadata that you might generate for a project.