The Importance of Metadata

If you have ever wanted to use someone else's data, such as for a meta-analysis or for comparison with your own data, you may have had a difficult time finding, deciphering, and using that data. You may have found that critical information about the data is missing. Worse, there may have been no clear contact information where you could send questions.

Regardless of the source of the data, whether it is a colleague next door or an international data repository, there is data-related information that you, as a scientist, expect and need. You need to know its storage location, format, and time and location of the measurements.

You also need to know the originator, contact information, initial collection intent, instruments used, processing methods and algorithms, and quality of the data. In fact, this information is required even when using your own data, though you may keep much of it in your head instead of in structured metadata.

Metadata are intended to provide all of this data-related information. Metadata help you find, access, understand, and use the data in the following ways. Metadata:

  • Make the data easier to manage.
    Data managers don't have to repeatedly answer the same questions about processing methods, data quality, etc. Effectively, the metadata reduce duplication of effort, facilitate sharing of reliable information, streamline workload, and publicize or document work.
  • Make data more useful to more people.
    Those attempting to use the data have their data-related questions answered by the metadata. For the data user, the metadata make it possible to effectively find and use valuable data from other research projects.
  • Promote human and machine readability.
    Metadata provide data-related information in a form that can be read by a human or used in automated processing. Metadata become far more valuable when maintained in standard ways and stored in a computer so they may be searched by and distributed to others.
  • Fosters collaboration.
    Metadata will help raise awareness of the quality of data and activities in your organization. In turn, this could help establish new collaborations that further utilize your valuable data assets.
  • Avoids costly duplication.
    When data are easily found and accessed, the risk of accidental duplication of effort is reduced—scientists are less likely to reproduce research that has already been carried out.

Benefits of having quality metadata are further outlined in the NISO guide, Understanding Metadata. As stated in the NISO guide, "Metadata is key to ensuring that resources will survive and continue to be accessible into the future."

Suggested Citation

Hogrefe, K., Stocks, K. 2010. "The Importance of Metadata." In The MMI Guides: Navigating the World of Marine Metadata. Accessed October 26, 2020.