Should Researchers Use a Standard Folder Structure?

I love to teach people about data management and file organization, but I tend to talk mostly about file naming conventions and ISO 8601. These two strategies are incredibly helpful in keeping files organized and easy to find, but file organization also has a role.

My usual thoughts about file organization are to have a logical way to organize your files and to put files in the correct folders. Coupled with strong file naming conventions, having some established folder system usually works well enough and is flexible to account for the wide variety of data types.

That said, I’ve been reading a couple data management resources recently – “Managing your Research Data and Documentation” by Kathy Berenson and Towards a Standardized Research Folder Structure on the Gen R Blog – that recommend a specific folder organization structure for research files and data. For example, they advocate for having a folder for each project with separate defined folders for primary data, data analysis, and data dissemination, in addition to having other folders for content like grant administrata, etc. These two resources outline folder templates, though the proposed structures aren’t identical.

The recommendation to use a specific folder structure for research data and files has me thinking about the value of such templates for research. On one hand, it’s incredibly useful to having a defined and well organized hierarchy to manage and find content. On the other hand, research is very heterogenous by nature and no one folder structure template is guaranteed to work for all types of research.

I keep coming back to the fact that data management skills are a toolkit and you use the tools you need to make the work easier and leave the rest. I don’t think there is one right answer when it comes to folder organization, but having an established structure may be beneficial to many researchers. As I teach file organization in the future, I plan to use the recommendations from Berenson and the Gen R blog as examples for people to follow if they choose.

I’d love to hear from others if you would find a standard file structure useful in your research?