On Informative File Names

Warning: This post is about professional etiquette and/or venting about a pet peeve.

Suppose you are submitting a paper to a conference, paper award, or the like – a judged competition which usually receives a relatively large number of submissions – by means of an email attachment.* What should you name the attached document? There are some real issues here. There is no standard format, and there has been some historical variation in which characters were acceptable (spaces used to be annoying, now are not, etc.). But I think we can all agree that a reasonable answer should include, at a minimum, the author’s last name, some version of the paper title, and perhaps some indication of the competition to which it is being submitted, e.g. “Hirschman_Totally Awesome Paper Title_Section Award.” My preferred variant is actually “Hirschman (2014) Totally Awesome Paper Title (Section Award Version)” as it’s most useful for me, but I don’t have a strong claim to it being the perfect solution.

What doesn’t, and can’t, make sense is a submission simply titled “Section Award.pdf.” This can’t make sense because it doesn’t scale. If everyone uses the same filename, the organizers or award committee members will have a directory entirely consisting of “Section Award (n).pdf” for n from 1 to N, and no way of telling which was which without using some kind of internal search feature. So what possible logic leads people to consistently title attachments this way? Arguably, the purpose of the submission is the least important piece of information in the filename as it’s the one thing the recipient already knows, and which is shared across all submissions!

Tl;dr: When sending out a paper as an attachment, please use an informative file name.

* The same holds for submissions to, say, department workshops where only one paper is being presented at a time, but in that context proper naming is somewhat less urgent, as receiving only one submission at a time makes it more likely I will rename the file anyway. That said, the more informative your file name, the easier it is for everyone receiving it rename to their liking, and usually such submissions have larger audiences and thus burden more people if you use an uninformative file name as everyone has to rename it.



  1. how about “bomb_ass_paper.docx” ??? (actual name of a submitted paper I got last semester from an undergraduate)

    • Ugh. Yes! I wasn’t even thinking about student paper submissions – in some sense, I give them more of a pass than I probably ought to as they aren’t professionals in the field communicating with other professionals. But all the same rules apply. And the violations are much more systematic.

  2. I would add grad students seeking feedback from advisors. It’s likely you are not their only student, and it’s likely you’ll write more than one version of that dissertation chapter.

  3. carly

     /  March 13, 2014

    Just as an FYI, the final version of my dissertation that got sent to the printers was “Diss_final_forrealz_yo.pdf”. I was getting a little fed up with fixing the format.

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