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Data Management: Metadata

A guide to assist researchers in data management

What is Metadata?

Metadata is often defined as "data about data".  It is also known as data documentation. Metadata is used to describe and document research data.  Metadata facilitates searching for data in an archive or repository and makes the data easily understood by anyone who wants to use the data. It describes the who, what, when, where, how and why about data. 

There are two types of metadata 

Structural metadata: indicates how compound objects are put together. For example, how pages are ordered to form chapters.

Descriptive metadata: describes a resource for purposes such as discovery and identification. It can include elements such as title, abstract, author, and keywords.

Metadata Elements

A number of elements should be included in metadata. Some of these are listed here.

  • Principal investigator
  • Funding sources
  • Data collector/producer
  • Project description
  • Sample and sampling procedures
  • Weighting
  • Substantive, temporal, and geographic coverage of the data collection
  • Data source(s)
  • Unit(s) of analysis/observation
  • Variables
  • Technical information on files
  • Data collection instruments


Adapted from ICPSR:  Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research

Metadata Resources

Metadata standards

Metadata standards are uniform ways to descrbe data.  Some disciplines have devised metadata standards and others have not. Common metadata standards are Dublin Core and the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) ( see links below). Here are some sources to find metadata standards.