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Data Management for Undergraduate Researchers: Documentation

What is Documentation?

Documentation is capturing the work that you performed in ways that others could read it, understand what you did and be able to reproduce your work if needed.  Your documentation should include both your day to day activities (what you did) as well as "big picture" information (why you did it).  More specifically it should include the following elements at minimum:

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

Resources for Documenting Your Data

Please note that you should follow the instructions given to you by SURF and your advisor before following the advice given in the sites listed below. For example, do not leave any white space on a page that could be used for additional documentation.

Why Do You Need to Document Your Work?

There are multiple reasons to give time and attention towards documenting your work including:

  • You will undoubtedly need to review the work that you have done at some point.  Generating quality documentation will save you time and effort in reviewing your work.
  • You will undoubtedly need to share your work with others at some point, even if it is with others in your lab or with your advisor.  Generating quality documentation enables others to understand and appreciate your work.  Quality documentation also enables you to be able to share or publish your data outside of the lab increasing the impact of your research.
  • Your findings or methods may be called into question at some point (hopefully not but it does happen more and more frequently).  Generating quality documentation can demonstrate the integrity of your work and protects you from accusations of misconduct.
  • Research is an iterative process.  You may want to return to your data and pursue additional analysis or repurpose it for a new research project.  Quality documentation makes it easier for you (or others) to reuse your data

What Should Your Documentation Include?

Answering this question depends on the research that you are conducting, the data that you are generating, as well as what your advisor would like you to do with your data and his or her needs and expectations.  Talk with your advisor about documentation early on and check with him or her frequently to be sure that expectations are met.

Possible elements to consider documenting include: 

  • Providing a rationale for the research you are conducting 
  • Providing a rationale 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 timing 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 your data are stored and backed up
  • Your quality assurance procedures for your data
  • Definitions of the terms that you are using (a glossary)

Subject Guide

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Scott Brandt
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