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Research data metadata: a short glossary of basic terms and definitions


Administrative metadata

 Provides information to help manage a resource, such as when and how it was created, file type and other technical information, and who can access it. Is often subdivided into rights management metadata and preservation metadata. See also descriptive and structural metadata.  

Collection-level metadata

 The UK Data Service distinguishes between item-level documentation and study-level documentation. A similar distinction is sometimes made in the literature on metadata, between collection (or project) level metadata and file level metadata. Collection-level metadata describes a collection of data files that are grouped together at some level of commonality, such as a dataset used to support published research findings. A collection-level metadata record is normally required when a dataset is deposited in a data repository or data centre. The level of detail at which a digital resource can be described is known as granularity

Controlled vocabulary

 Controlled vocabularies are lists of selected terms and phrases. They provide standardised and consistent terms for the values that are added to metadata elements such as subject headings, names, generic terms and geographical areas. Controlled vocabularies are used to make it easier and more efficient to locate and retrieve resources and information. Using a controlled vocabulary helps to reduce ambiguity and maintain consistency in the terms used to describe data (see Miller, chapter 5). 

Descriptive metadata

Describes a resource for purposes such as discovery and identification. It can include elements such as title, abstract, author, and keywords. “Descriptive metadata is the data that users directly see and interact with in order to find, identify, interpret, group, and navigate resources and collections” (Miller, 2011, p12). See also administrative and structural metadata. 

File-level metadata

Is used to describe individual files within a dataset or file collection. File-level metadata may be embedded in the file itself or recorded in a separate file such as a spreadsheet or PDF document. See also collection level metadata


Granularity refers to the level of detail at which an information resource is viewed or described. Lower levels of granularity are used to describe collections of data files generated during a research project such as a dataset. Higher levels of granularity allow for more detailed description such as technical and structural information which may not applicable to the collection as a whole. See also collection-level metadata, file-level metadata and interoperability


“The ability of multiple systems, using different hardware and software platforms, data structures, and interfaces, to exchange and share data with minimal loss of content and functionality” (NISO, 2017). Disciplinary or domain specific metadata standards often require detailed technical and structural information or use specialist elements and vocabularies which can prevent metadata being shared between systems. Some metadata standards (such as Dublin Core and the DataCite Metadata Schema) have been designed to facilitate interoperability by establishing a core set of metadata elements that can be “mapped” from one standard to another.  


“Metadata is structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information” (NISO, 2017).

 “Metadata is often defined as ‘data about data’ or ‘information about information’ It is usually structured textual information that describes something about the creation, content, or context of a digital resource – be it a single file, part of a single file, or a collection of many files” (Jisc, Metadata Infokit). 

Metadata elements

Metadata elements (sometimes referred to as properties) are the basic fields that structure a metadata record, such as title, author, date, description, location, etc. 

Metadata schema

A metadata schema is a set of metadata elements that have been grouped together for a specific purpose. 

Metadata standards

Some metadata schemas become accepted as standard by a particular community or discipline. They might be officially validated by a standards organisation or simply consistently and commonly used. Metadata standards are schemas that have been well documented and endorsed by someone. Examples include VRA Core (images and works of culture), EAD (archival materials), and CIF (crystallographic science data). See also interoperability

Preservation metadata

Contains information needed to archive and preserve a resource. Communicates what is needed to maintain and protect data. PREMIS is a metadata standard specifically designed to support the preservation of digital objects.   

Rights management metadata

Describes the terms of access and any restrictions to accessing datasets. Deals with intellectual property rights, licensing and end user agreements. 

Structural metadata

Indicates how compound objects are put together, for example, how pages are ordered to form chapters. It is used to describe the internal structure of digital resources and the relationships between parts. Mets is an example of a structural metadata standard. See also administrative and descriptive metadata. 


Caplan, P (2003) Metadata Fundamentals for All Librarians, Chicago: ALA Editions.

Miller, S.J. (2011) Metadata for Digital Collections: A How-to-do-it Manual, London: Facet Publishing.

Jisc Metadata Infokit 

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