Documentation for reuse

In order for someone to understand and use data that they haven’t collected, it's important that the data are documented with understandable and relevant information. This applies regardless of whether the reuser is a researcher who joins an existing project, or someone who wants to reuse data that have been made accessible after a project has ended. Which documentation, and how much of it, that is needed varies between projects and scientific disciplines. What may be crystal clear to someone who knows the contents of the data material well, may not be as evident to another researcher.

Consider the following questions when you create documentation for the data you work with:

  • Which researchers may be interested in reusing the project data? What do they already know? Is it possible that they may come from other disciplines?
  • What needs to be clarified in order to make the data understandable to someone else? Would an outsider understand how the material is organised and how the files are connected? Would they be able to tell how the data were collected or created?
  • Do you use abbreviations, codes, or terminology that need to be explained?
  • Will the documentation be understandable over time? Will a researcher understand it in 20 years? In 50?
  • Is it clearly stated which possible legal or ethical restrictions that limit how the data may be reused?

Ultimately, the documentation is supposed to still be accessible and helpful when there is no-one left from the original project.

(Read the Document section if you want to learn more about how to document research data.)