Comprehensive Data Management Planning & Services

Guide to writing "readme" style metadata

A readme file provides information about a data file and is intended to help ensure that the data can be correctly interpreted, by yourself at a later date or by others when sharing or publishing data. Standards-based metadata is generally preferable, but where no appropriate standard exists, for internal use, writing “readme” style metadata is an appropriate strategy.

This document is also available as a PDF that includes example readme files.

Best practices

Create one readme file for each data file, whenever possible. It is also appropriate to describe a "dataset" that has multiple, related, identically formatted files, or files that are logically grouped together for use (e.g. a collection of Matlab scripts). When appropriate, also describe the file structure that holds the related data files (see Example 2 in the PDF version).

Name the readme so that it is easily associated with the data file(s) it describes.

Write your readme document as a plain text file, avoiding proprietary formats such as MS Word whenever possible. Format the readme document so it is easy to understand (e.g. separate important pieces of information with blank lines, rather than having all the information in one long paragraph).

Format multiple readme files identically. Present the information in the same order, using the same terminology.

Use standardized date formats. Suggested format: W3C/ISO 8601 date standard, which specifies the international standard notation of YYYYMMDD or YYYYMMDDThhmmss.

Follow the scientific conventions for your discipline for taxonomic, geospatial and geologic names and keywords. Whenever possible, use terms from standardized taxonomies and vocabularies, a few of which are listed below.

Source Content URL
Getty Research Institute Vocabularies geographic names, art & architecture, cultural objects, artist names
Integrated Taxonomic Information System taxonomic information on plants, animals, fungi, microbes
NASA Thesauri engineering, physics, astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, Earth sciences, biological sciences
GCMD Keywords Earth & climate sciences, instruments, sensors, services, data centers, etc.
The Gene Ontology Vocabulary gene product characteristics, gene product annotation
USGS Thesauri agriculture, forest, fisheries, Earth sciences, life sciences, engineering, planetary sciences, social sciences etc.

Recommended content

Recommended minimum content for data re-use is in bold.

Introductory information

  1. For each filename, a short description of what data it contains
  2. Format of the file if not obvious from the file name
  3. If the data set includes multiple files that relate to one another, the relationship between the files or a description of the file structure that holds them (possible terminology might include "dataset" or "study" or "data package")
  4. Name/institution/address/email information for
    • Principal investigator (or person responsible for collecting the data)
    • Associate or co-investigators
    • Contact person for questions
  5. Date of data collection (can be a single date, or a range)
  6. Information about geographic location of data collection
  7. Date that the file was created
  8. Date(s) that the file(s) was updated and the nature of the update(s), if applicable
  9. Keywords used to describe the data topic
  10. Language information

Methodological information

  1. Method description, links or references to publications or other documentation containing experimental design or protocols used in data collection
  2. Any instrument-specific information needed to understand or interpret the data
  3. Standards and calibration information, if appropriate
  4. Describe any quality-assurance procedures performed on the data
  5. Definitions of codes or symbols used to note or characterize low quality/questionable/outliers that people should be aware of
  6. People involved with sample collection, processing, analysis and/or submission

Data-specific information

  1. Full names and definitions (spell out abbreviated words) of column headings  for tabular data
  2. Units of measurement
  3. Definitions for codes or symbols used to record missing data
  4. Specialized formats or abbreviations used

Sharing/Access information

  1. Licenses or restrictions placed on the data
  2. Links to publications that cite or use the data
  3. Links to other publicly accessible locations of the data
  4. Recommended citation for the data
  5. Information about funding sources that supported the collection of the data


The preceding guidelines have been adapted from several sources, including:

Recommendations for authors. Dryad. 2012. now available at

Introduction to Ecological Metadata Language (EML). The Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. 2012.

Related information

Document and Store Data Using Stable File Formats. DataONE. Useful information about file formats.

File formats. Cornell Research Data Management Service Group.

File management. Cornell Research Data Management Service Group.

Introduction to Intellectual Property Rights in Data Management. Peter Hirtle.

Metadata and Describing Data. Cornell Research Data Management Service Group.