Define & Document

File Naming Conventions (FNC)

A File Naming Convention (FNC) is a framework for naming your files purposefully by describing what they contain. Developing an FNC is done by identifying the key elements of the project. These elements could include things like the date of creation, author's name, project name, name of a section or sub-section of the project, or the version of the file.

A file naming convention (FNC) can help you stay organized by making it easy to identify the file(s) that contain the information that you are looking for just from its title and by grouping files that contain similar information close together.  A good FNC can also help others better understand and navigate through your work.

Consider the following examples:

Files without employing a naming convention:

  • Test_data_2013
  • Project_Data
  • Design for project.doc
  • Lab_work_Eric
  • Second_test
  • Meeting Notes Oct 23

Files with a naming convention:

  • 20130503_DOEProject_DesignDocument_Smith_v2-01.docx
  • 20130709_DOEProject_MasterData_Jones_v1-00.xlsx
  • 20130825_DOEProject_Ex1Test1_Data_Gonzalez_v3-03.xlsx
  • 20130825_DOEProject_Ex1Test1_Documentation_Gonzalez_v3-03.xlsx
  • 20131002_DOEProject_Ex1Test2_Data_Gonzalez_v1-01.xlsx
  • 20141023_DOEProject_ProjectMeetingNotes_Kramer_v1-00.docx

Unlike the files without a naming convention, the files with a naming convention provide a preview of the content, are organized in a logical way (by date yyyy-mm-dd), identify the responsible party, and convey the work history.

Establishing an effective file naming convention is an investment of time and effort. It should be based on your articulated needs as well as your team. There are no perfect file naming conventions, but there are some basic rules that can help guide you.

  • Find the right balance of components for your FNC. Too few components create ambiguity; too many limit discovery and comprehension.
  • Use meaningful abbreviations.  File names that contain too many characters can be unwieldy and cause problems in transferring files.
  • Use underscores instead of spaces in the file name. Some programs have trouble interpreting spaces in file names.
  • Document your decisions including: what components you will use (the "project name" for example), what the appropriate entries are ("DOEProject"), what acronyms mean (DOE stands for the Department of Energy).
  • Your files will be grouped together based on the first few components so start your FNC with the more general components (e.g., project name) and move to the more specific ones after. Dates should always be yyyy-mm-dd to organize files chronologically.
  • A file naming convention breaks down if not followed consistently.  Be sure that everyone who needs to use the FNC is aware of it and knows how to apply it.

Best Practices for File-Naming
From the North Carolina Dept of Cultural Resources (2008); a short but thorough guide to developing file-naming conventions.

File Naming Guidelines
The State Library of North Carolina's four-part video tutorial on file naming.

Folder and File Naming Convention
10 Rules for Best Practice - Written by Vincent Santaguida in 2010, this website provides straightforward advice on developing a FNC.

Folder Hierarchy Best Practices for Digital Asset Management
Written by Edward Smith from the Digital Asset Management Center in 2011, this website extends FNCs to naming and working with file folders.


Documentation captures your work on the dataset so that others could understand what you did and be able to reproduce your work if needed.  Your documentation should include both your step-by-step processes (what you did) as well as placing the project in a larger context (why you did it).  You documentation should include the following elements at minimum:

  • What was done
  • How it was done
  • Why it was done
  • When the work was performed
  • Where it was performed
  • Who performed the work

There are multiple reasons to give time and attention to documenting your work as you go including:

  • Quality documentation will save you time and effort in reviewing and writing up your work later.
  • Quality documentation enables others to understand and appreciate your work.  It also enables you to be able to share or publish your data outside of the lab increasing the impact of your research.
  • Quality documentation can demonstrate the integrity of your work.
  • Quality documentation makes it easier for you (or others) to reuse your data

Answering this question depends on the research that you are conducting, the data that you are generating, as well as what you would like you to do with your data. 

Possible elements to consider documenting include: 

  • The reasoning and context for the research you are conducting 
  • The reasoning and hypotheses for the specific experiments that you are conducting 
  • Descriptions of your experiments, methodologies and analysis  
  • Providing a high level description of your data 
  • Describing the content of your data files, including: the units of measurement used, how missing values are accounted for, any conditions that might affect the quality of the data
  • Time and duration of the data collection
  • Location or geographical coordinates of the data collection
  • Information about the precision, accuracy or any uncertainties in your data, including any outliers
  • A description of the instruments that you are working with including the settings, calibrations and software that you are using
  • Where data are stored and backed up
  • Any quality assurance procedures applied to your data
  • Definitions of the terms that you are using (a glossary)

Instructions for Using Your Laboratory Notebook
Developed for a Mechanical Engineering Course at MIT, this document outlines how to create a quality lab notebook.

Primer on Data Management: What you Always Wanted to Know
Produced by DataONE, this guide provides advice on managing and documenting data through out the data lifecycle.

Maintaining a laboratory notebook
Written by Colin Purrington, an evolutionary biologist, this site provides a lengthy list of dos and don'ts in keeping a lab notebook for any discipline.