Research projects can vary in their complexity and therefore require different levels of record keeping. For example, conducting a small project, like a quick evaluation after a workshop, can take just a few hours. A larger project may take several years, for instance when testing a new drug. And a cohort study, like investigating the life expectancy of individuals who have experienced trauma at some point in their lives, may take decades. It is often more difficult to keep track of project processes when a project is long and involves many people. Therefore, you must document your plans, procedures and data collection before, during, and after your project.

The process of documenting your research is called ‘record keeping’. Good record keeping ensures that:

  • you and others can retrace exactly when you did what and why
  • you can keep a good overview of your data
  • your research is conducted according to ethical standards

To be able to retrace what you did, you can create a research protocol before your study begins. A research protocol describes how you came up with a research idea; your objectives for the research, hypotheses and procedures; and how you will analyse and interpret the results.

During the data collection period there are additional record keeping concerns. You need to implement a system to pseudonymise or anonymise the data provided by each participant.

  • Pseudnonymisation means allocating a research ID to each participant and keeping a separate list which matches each participant to their ID number. This is especially helpful when you need to re-contact participants repeatedly during the study or conduct a before-and-after study.
  • Anonymisation means ensuring there is no way of tracing back who provided which set of data. This can be especially important when collecting sensitive data, for example, when asking employees to evaluate their leaders, or when the researcher themself is being evaluated.

It could also be that circumstances change during data collection. This might be the case when recruitment is slower than expected and the researcher drops some recruitment questions to facilitate participation in the study. Such changes need to be transparently documented.

Finally, after finishing data collection, you must thoroughly document all steps and results of data analysis, including any work or code which is made using statistical software packages. From this documentation, other people should be able to replicate your process and study results if they want to.

Record keeping is an important part of conducting research to ensure transparency, replicability, rigour and ethical conduct of the data collection and interpretation process.

(Author: Leonie Ader)

What is it?

Videos:

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Knowledge clip: Data Documentation by UGent Data Stewards (2020)

This video is a comprehensive introduction into record keeping (documentation) explaining why, when, and how to do it. It focuses on specific strategies of documentation on the study, file and variable level.

(Academic reference: UGent Data Stewards (2020, December 2). Knowledge clip: Data Documentation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ogbkx74Ym8&ab_channel=UGentDataStewards)

Websites:

Data Management: Research Records by The University of Iowa (2022)

This website gives a short overview of what research records are, what points to consider when managing data, and what responsibilities you have as a researcher.

(Academic reference: The University of Iowa (2022, July 29). 5h. Data Management: Research Records. Researcher Handbook. https://researcherhandbook.research.uiowa.edu/5h-data-management-research-records)

Articles:

Academic Research Record-Keeping: Best Practices for Individuals, Group Leaders, and Institutions by Schreier and colleagues (2006)

This article presents a set of best practices for research record-keeping for academic research groups on three different levels within a research institution: the individual researcher, the research group leader and the department/institution.

(Academic reference: Schreier, A., Wilson, K., & Resnik, D. (2006). Academic Research Record-Keeping: Best Practices for Individuals, Group Leaders, and Institutions. Academic Medicine, 81(1), 42-47.)

How is it done?

Videos:

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Knowledge clip: Keeping research data organized by UGent Data Stewards (2021)

This video explains why file organisation is important, what it involves, how to develop file naming conventions and folder structures, how to keep track of different versions of files, including lots of practical advice.

(Academic reference: UGent Data Stewards (2021, September 29). Knowledge clip: Keeping research data organized [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YslfY4W-NAg&ab_channel=UGentDataStewards)

Manuals & Guides:

Academic Research Record-Keeping: Best Practices for Individuals, Group Leaders, and Institutions by Schreier and colleagues (2006)

Table 1 of this article gives a comprehensive list of what research records explain and how to keep them.

(Academic reference: Schreier, A., Wilson, K., & Resnik, D. (2006). Academic Research Record-Keeping: Best Practices for Individuals, Group Leaders, and Institutions. Academic Medicine, 81(1), 42-47.)

Articles:

Process and record keeping by Deakin University and Griffith University (2022)

This article provides an overview of what needs to be done in a research project in terms of record keeping. It provides a real-world example and a task to encourage you to plan for managing data in a theoretical research project.

(Academic reference: Deakin University and Griffith University (2022, June 28). Process and record keeping. Futurelearn. https://www.futurelearn.com/info/courses/why-experience-matters/0/steps/45513)

Method in action

Videos:

What is the Open Science Framework all about? by Research Masterminds (2021)

The Open Science Framework is an initiative for researchers to register and share their work at any stage of their project. Open Science practices may help to prevent forging of data or results, adjusting hypotheses or stealing unpublished research ideas. Instead, research is made more accessible and collaboration may be encouraged.

(Academic reference: Research Masterminds (2021, June 10). What is the Open Science Framework all about? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M8KXXKqzhU&ab_channel=ResearchMasterminds)

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