Metadata is structured information about an object, like a dataset, and has value to both the original creator and other users. Complete metadata allows researchers to locate data they created and recall the circumstances and context under which they created and analyzed the data. It allows researchers outside of the original research team to:
NCSU Libraries has put together a set of baseline metadata elements that could be used to describe data. NCSU usefully recommends that "[a]t a minimum, metadata records should be kept in a fielded form, such as a spreadsheet, CSV file, or tab-delimited file. Auxiliary information necessary to interpret the metadata - such as explanations of codes, abbreviations, or algorithms used - should be included as accompanying documentation."
In the context of research data, a readme file is a plain text file (.txt) or a sheet in a spreadsheet that helps others understand your data and interconnections among data files. By titling the file "readme," the date creator messagers to users that this file should be looked at first. For researchers depositing data in Knowledge@UChicago or a data repository, the information in the readme file may augment information included in the metadata form and, if the deposit includes multiple files, may explain the file naming structure, relationship among the files, and abbreviations used.
Cornell University's Research Data Management Service Group has made a useful readme file template available for download. At a minimum, the Cornell group recommends completing the following sections in the readme file template:
Data set title
Name and contact information for investigators
Date (or date range) of data collection
Geographic location of data collection
Data and file overview
A short description of each file
Date that the file was created
Description of methods for data collection
Description of methods for data processing
Variable list, with full names and definitions of column headings if tabular data
Units of measurement
Definitions for codes or symbols used to record missing information (see Cornell University, Guide to writing "readme" style metadata)