File names should not be arbitrary. When managing your research data or your personal folders, there are many ways you can save time by using them efficiently. Here is a brief explainer by Guillaume Pasquier.
File names are the most basic sort of metadata: they can be used to describe the data your files contain, as well as lots of other useful information. Defining a file naming convention will help you identify at a glance what each of your files is really about.
What can a file name contain?
Many keywords can be included within a file name: project information, author, date, version, contents – with enough context, they can let you know what a file contains without the need to open it. There is more than one way to structure your filenames, though. Let’s see a few examples from different fields:
Development studies: WSP_2012Survey_Apurimac_20150718_GP.xlsx
Within the Water Sanitation Project (WSP), this file contains the results of a survey held in 2012 in Apurimac (Perú). It was last edited on July 18, 2015 by Guillaume Pasquier. Based on the file name structure, you can expect other files to contain results to the same survey in different locations, and possibly different years.
This is most likely a picture or digitisation of the first page of a letter dated 18 March 1963 from Lyndon B. Johnson to John F. Kennedy. The date is placed first and the page number is placed last so that the researcher can sort documents alphabetically to put them in order.
Team collaboration: LabMeeting_20180712_RDM.docx
These are most probably notes taken in a lab meeting on July 12, 2018. The main subject was apparently research data management (RDM). The generic aspect (lab meeting) is placed first, then the date since it is a regular occurrence, and the specific subject comes last.
A very different approach: FR3S_140623_129C_2653_W.JPG
This illegible file name can only make sense if it is accompanied with a codebook. This documentation will let you understand the detailed information displayed within the file name. In specific cases – such as massive generic file collections –, this approach can make a lot of sense, as long as the naming convention is well-documented.
Choose your own adventure
As you can see, there are multiple ways your filenames can become informative, and that can be extremely useful, especially for team projects.
The file organisation section of our guide on research data management will give you more useful tips, including folder structures and file version management. Check it out and let us know if you have other examples!
Header picture (cropped): Stuff on hard drive, by Erik Maldre (CC By 2.0)