It is essential to systematically document your data during your research and when depositing your data set into an online repository. This allows you, as well as current and future users, to find, understand and reuse your data.
Detailed and clear data documentation (i.e. proper description, annotation and contextual information) improve the quality of your data and is key in order to make your data publishable, discoverable, citable and reusable. In general, your documentation should answer the following questions:
- What does my data set contain? What abbreviations were used and what do they mean?
- How was my data collected and how much? Who collected the data? When were they collected?
- How were my data processed? What software is needed to read them?
The most common required form of documenting your data is by adding a README to your data set/data package.
Keeping digital research notes
Another form of documenting your data is through keeping digital research notes for which several types of software are available. There is a wide offer of so-called 'Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs)'. For an overview, see for example Dirnagl and Przesdzing (2016), A pocket guide to electronic laboratory notebooks in the academic life sciences. Note that an ELN is not the same as a 'Laboratory Information Management System' (LIMS). A LIMS is meant to track all the measurements, samples and protocols that are processed day by day in a laboratory. In an ELN, a note may be stored that certain samples were sent to the laboratory for a specific research project on a specific date, when the results were received back and where these files can be found.
A number of groups have developed an adequate way of working with general-purpose notes applications. We here share several "Tips & tricks" and examples for OneNote that were kindly made available by the Food Process Engineering Group:
Metadata: machine-readable data documentation
Preparing data documentation for publication
For PhD candidates and postdocs, the Graduate Schools offer a Research Data Management course, which is organised by WUR library and given four times a year. This course covers various aspects of data management, among which data documentation including metadata. More background information can be found here.