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Data Management: File Formats

File Formats

File Formats

File formats are an important consideration in managing research data.

To ensure usability of and access to your data over the course of time you need to determine that durable file formats are utilised. This encompasses the life cycle of a research project as well as for long term access that may be required, to meet a data retention period, after completion of a research project.

Not all file formats are durable over time or compatible with the need to share data with others. There is also a distinction between the types of file formats that are optimal for presentation versus those optimal for preservation and longer term access.

Considerations include:

  • Use of open formats versus use of proprietary formats
  • Availability of the file format specifications
  • The software required to support the format, now and into the future
  • The capabilities of different formats
  • Short term access versus long term access and digital preservation
  • How you plan to analyse, manipulate, distribute and store the data
  • Current and future use of the data


The National Archives of Australia has documented the suggested file formats for 'born-digital' file formats to ensure the preservation, accessibility and interoperability or you can review the table below.

Determining an Appropriate File Format

Long Term Preservation

There are a number of resources available to assist you in determining an appropriate file format for your data. The following table, prepared by the UK Data Archive contains data formats identified by the Archive as optimal for long term preservation of data to the Archive. These can serve as a guide.

Type of data Acceptable formats for sharing, reuse and preservation Other acceptable formats for data preservation

Quantitative tabular data with extensive metadata

a dataset with variable labels, code labels, and defined missing values, in addition to the matrix of data

SPSS portable format (.por)

delimited text and command ('setup') file (SPSS, Stata, SAS, etc.) containing metadata information

some structured text or mark-up file containing metadata information, e.g. DDI XML file
proprietary formats of statistical packages e.g. SPSS (.sav), Stata (.dta)
MS Access (.mdb/.accdb)

Quantitative tabular data with minimal metadata

a matrix of data with or without column headings or variable names, but no other metadata or labelling

comma-separated values (CSV) file (.csv)

tab-delimited file (.tab)

including delimited text of given character set with SQL data definition statements where appropriate

delimited text of given character set - only characters not present in the data should be used as delimiters (.txt)

widely-used formats, e.g. MS Excel (.xls/.xlsx), MS Access (.mdb/.accdb), dBase (.dbf) and OpenDocument Spreadsheet (.ods)

Geospatial data

vector and raster data

ESRI Shapefile (essential - .shp, .shx, .dbf, optional - .prj, .sbx, .sbn)

geo-referenced TIFF (.tif, .tfw)

CAD data (.dwg)

tabular GIS attribute data

ESRI Geodatabase format (.mdb)

MapInfo Interchange Format (.mif) for vector data

Keyhole Mark-up Language (KML) (.kml)

Adobe Illustrator (.ai), CAD data (.dxf or .svg)

binary formats of GIS and CAD packages

Qualitative data


eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML) text according to an appropriate Document Type Definition (DTD) or schema (.xml)

Rich Text Format (.rtf)

plain text data, ASCII (.txt)

Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) (.html)

widely-used proprietary formats, e.g. MS Word (.doc/.docx)

some proprietary/software-specific formats, e.g. NUD*IST, NVivo and ATLAS.ti

Digital image data TIFF version 6 uncompressed (.tif)

JPEG (.jpeg, .jpg) but only if created in this format

TIFF (other versions) (.tif, .tiff)

Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF/A, PDF) (.pdf)

standard applicable RAW image format (.raw)

Photoshop files (.psd)
Digital audio data Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) (.flac)

MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (.mp3) but only if created in this format

Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) (.aif)

Waveform Audio Format (WAV) (.wav)
Digital video data

MPEG-4 (.mp4)

motion JPEG 2000 (.mj2)
Documentation and scripts Rich Text Format (.rtf)
PDF/A or PDF (.pdf)
HTML (.htm)
OpenDocument Text (.odt)

plain text (.txt)

some widely-used proprietary formats, e.g. MS Word (.doc/.docx) or MS Excel (.xls/.xlsx)

XML marked-up text (.xml) according to an appropriate DTD or schema, e.g. XHMTL 1.0

Source : UK Data Archive :