Social Science Data Management: Describing Research Data

A guide to help researchers manage, store, and share their social science data. We also schedule one-on-one or group sessions if you have additional data questions. If you would like to schedule a data consultation contact Rebekah Cummings at rebekah.cumm

Metadata for social science research

Your data must be described properly to be understandable to any future users and even to you six months down the line. Metadata is structured data that helps explain the who, what, where, why, and how of your research project. 

Metadata Basics

  • Who? Who contributed to your project? Who is the principal investigator? Who should be contacted with questions about the data or the findings? Who contributed to the project in other ways (authors, research assistants, etc.)? 
  • What? What kind of data and analysis were used? 
  • When? When was the data collected? When was the analysis performed? Are there any other important dates associated with the data? 
  • Where? Does this project involve a particular geographic region? (Utah, Salt Lake City, etc.) 
  • Why? What questions are you trying to answer? 

Creating a Read Me file

Create a "Read Me" text file that explains your process including your file naming, variable naming, folder structures, necessary documentation, and processing steps. Look at a sample Read Me plain text file to get an idea of what information should be included. 

Standardizing Your Documentation

While any metadata is a good start, using community standards for creating metadata allows your data to be searchable across data repositories even down to a variable level. The best data repositories use standardized metadata to allow users to search by investigator, geography, title, subject, and research question. This type of searching is only possible with structured metadata. 

A widely used standard in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is the Data Documentation Initiative. Expressed in XML, DDI allows data to be described across the research data lifecycle. To learn more about DDI, visit their website at

To research other community standards, visit the Digital Curation Centre's Disciplinary Metadata Webpage


Special thanks to the University of Minnesota for informing this page.


Marriott Library Eccles Library Quinney Law Library