Metadata Recording

The sample sheet editor in SODAR is under construction and does not yet support the full set of features for creating and editing sample sheets. Until these features are finished, CUBI will prepare the necessary tabular files (ISA-Tab) corresponding to your project and provide them to you to fill out in Excel or your spreadsheet application of choice.

The process currently includes the following steps:

  1. Preparation - Tell us about the project and we set up appropriate ISA-Tab files from our templates.

  2. Recording - Fill out the study and assay sheets with your metadata.

  3. Validation - Send us the files for some pre-processing and validation.

  4. Upload - Upload the ISA-Tab files to the corresponding SODAR project.

SODAR utilizes the ISA framework and in particular the ISA-Tab format to integrate experimental metadata into SODAR projects. To facilitate the recording of metadata in consistent and valid ISA-Tab files (as far as possible), this document provides a brief introduction on the ISA-Tab format and defines rules to consider when editing them in Excel and co.


About ISA-Tab

ISA (short for Investigation, Study and Assay) is an open source framework for standardizing metadata for scientific experiments.

An ISA investigation can consist of several studies and each study can contain several assays (experiments of one measurement type and method, e.g. transcriptome profiling using nucleotide sequencing aka RNA-Seq or protein expression profiling using mass spectrometry).

In practice, projects in SODAR will mostly consist of one study including one assay (or sometimes more, e.g. for multi-omics studies). In this common case, an ISA-Tab project will consist of three files:

  1. Investigation file (i_Investigation.txt), containing general project information including i.a. study and assay titles, descriptions and relations.

  2. Study file (s_STUDY-ID.txt), a tabular file describing samples and corresponding sources.

  3. Assay file (a_STUDY-ID_ASSAY-TYPE.txt), a tabular file describing sample processing and measurement as well as corresponding data files.

In the case of several studies or assays, each study and assay is represented by one distinct tabular file.

Tabular File Structure

In a study or assay file, each row represents an ordered chain of materials/data and transforming processes to illustrate the procedure of the experiment, from sample collection over preparation and measurement to data generation and processing.

Materials/data and processes are represented by cohesive blocks of several columns/fields. Material/data blocks start with an identifier column (Source Name, Sample Name, Extract Name, Labeled Extract Name or * File in the case of data), followed by descriptive columns (Characteristics[*], each potentially followed by a Unit column if appropriate). Process blocks start with a Protocol REF column which references a predefined protocol by name (which are declared in the investigation file), followed by descriptive columns (Parameter Value[*]). Both types of blocks can contain Comment[*] columns.

Characteristics[*], Unit and Parameter Value[*] columns might be followed by Term Source REF and Term Accession Number columns, indicating the potential use of linked ontology terms for this characteristic, unit or parameter, resp.

ISA-Tab makes use of several predefined and expected materials (Source Name, Sample Name, Extract Name, Labeled Extract Name). Furthermore, some columns are unique and exceptional in terms of not being standard descriptive columns (such as Characteristics[*], Parameter Value[*], etc.), but still being associated with a specific material or process. These include, for instance, Label (for material Labeled Extract Name), Performer and Date (for all processes), Assay Name (for processes with Protocol REF “Nucleic acid sequencing”) or MS Assay Name (for processes with Protocol REF “Mass spectrometry”).

A very simple study tabular file may look like this:

Study tabular file example

Source Name

Characteristics [Organism]

Protocol REF



Sample Name


Homo sapiens

Sample Collection

John Doe



While a study file ends with a Sample material block (starting with the Sample Name column), corresponding assays reference these samples by identifier in the first column (also called Sample Name, characteristics and co are not repeated, though).

A very simple assay tabular file may look like this:

Assay tabular file example

Sample Name

Protocol REF

Protocol REF

Parameter Value [Instrument]

Parameter Value [Mass analyzer]

Raw Spectral Data File



Mass spectrometry

Thermo Scientific™ Q Exactive



In practice, study and assay files will feature much more columns.

Splitting and Pooling

The concept of splitting and pooling can be used in the study and assay tabular files to represent, e.g. the collection of different samples from the same source (splitting), the creation of technical replicates (splitting) or collective multiplexed/multi-label measurements such as with SILAC and co (pooling).

Splitting is represented by repeating the identifier (and corresponding characteristics etc.) of the materials of origin. E.g. representing several samples of the same source looks as follows (simplified ISA-Tab study table excerpt without any characteristics, parameters, etc.):

Splitting example

Source Name

Protocol REF

Sample Name


Sample collection



Sample collection


Similar, materials can be pooled to depict collective processing by repeating the target materials or process names (simplified ISA-Tab assay table excerpt without any characteristics, parameters, etc.):

Pooling example

Extract Name

Protocol REF

Labeled Extract Name


Protocol REF

MS Assay Name





Mass spectrometry






Mass spectrometry


For more details on the ISA model and the ISA-Tab format, please have a look at the ISA documentation.

1. Preparation

Some basic information about the project is needed to initiate the SODAR project and the ISA-Tab files.

For the SODAR project, please provide a project title and a short description as well as the people who should be associated with the project. In general, all people with valid Charite or MDC account are eligible to access SODAR and thus can be associated with a project. Following roles are available:

  • Project owner: usually the PI in charge of and accountable for the project and (meta-) data.

  • Project delegate: second in charge, maybe a PI of a collaborating lab (optional).

  • Project contributor(s): staff who is generating and uploading (meta-) data (optional but recommended).

  • Project guest(s): people who are supposed to view but not alter any (meta-) data (optional).

Furthermore, indicate the studies and assays needed.

SODAR project information are recycled in the corresponding ISA-Tab. Depending on the extend of the project, the SODAR title and description may be applied either to the ISA investigation or to an ISA study. If the project (and thus investigation) is supposed to contain several studies, each study needs an own title, short description as well as short identifier. In the case of one-study projects, no specific investigation information is required and the project title and description may be reflected as the title and description of the single study. Only an additional study identifier is needed then.

In most cases one study might be sufficient. Several studies can be used for instance to keep a clean separation between different cohorts in a project. Other classifications of data/studies might be more appropriate using the multi-level categorization of projects in SODAR, e.g. the association of different projects with a collaboration partner or customer.

Each study may comprise several assays, though. Therefore indicate the type(s) of data measured and the technology used. Currently, CUBI provides assay templates for the following measurement types and technologies/methods:

Available assay templates



genome sequencing

nucleotide sequencing

exome sequencing

nucleotide sequencing

transcription profiling

nucleotide sequencing

metabolite profiling

mass spectrometry

protein expression profiling

mass spectrometry

protein identification

mass spectrometry

After sending us these information, we will initiate the SODAR project (you might do so on your own, if you are owner of a category in SODAR) and prepare and provide the corresponding ISA-Tab files to fill out.

2. Recording

Use a familiar spreadsheet program such as MS Office Excel or LibreOffice Calc to add and edit metadata in the study and assay tab files. If the file format is not recognized right away, the spreadsheet program may ask for the format specifics. In this case the following settings should be applied:

  • MS Office Excel (english)
    • Original data type: Delimited

    • File origin: 65001 : Unicode (UTF-8)

    • Delimiters: Tabstopp

    • Text qualifier: “

  • MS Office Excel (german)
    • Ursprünglicher Datentyp: Getrennt

    • Dateiursprung: 65001 : Unicode (UTF-8)

    • Trennzeichen: Tabstopp

    • Textqualifizierer: “

  • LibreOffice Calc (english)
    • Character Set: Unicode (UTF-8)

    • Separate options: Separate by - Tab

    • String delimiter: “

  • LibreOffice Calc (german)
    • Zeichensatz: Unicode (UTF-8)

    • Trennoptionen: Getrennt - Tabulator

    • Zeichenketten-Trennzeichen: “

Once the file is open, it should feature a header row in the structure as described above based on the template selected for the project. It is now ready for recording or editing metadata. Processes (i.e. Protocol REF columns) are already linked to the corresponding protocol by name reference for a default of 50 rows which should be reduced or extended, depending on the rows needed. Remember, materials and processes may repeat over several rows, if they are part of a splitting or pooling procedure. Furthermore, consider the following restrictions.

Editing Restrictions

ISA-Tab is a strictly defined/specified format and is prone to errors when things change uncontrollably, for instance with respect to indentation, encoding (UTF-8) and also content (available columns, declared protocols, parameters, etc.). Thus, the following notes are intended as rules or restrictions to keep the ISA-Tab files as consistent and valid as possible when the data is filled in manually, i.e. via Excel and co.

Please consider following the described rules/restrictions as much as possible, as it will benefit quick validation/postprocessing and upload to SODAR. Otherwise indicate necessary changes when sending us the files.

Explaining the technical reasons of these rules/restrictions is out of scope of this document.

  • Investigation file
    • Editing the investigation file manually is not recommended.

    • In particular, never open and save the investigation file (i_investigation.txt) with Excel, LibreOffice Calc or similar. It will mess up indentation and thereby render the file unusable.

  • Study and assay files
    • Always save the file in the same format as it was opened: tab-separated text file (txt).

  • Adding and deleting columns
    • Don’t delete any columns! Leave fields empty which are not of interest for your project.

    • Adding Comment[*] columns to any material/data or process block shouldn’t result in any problems.

    • Adding Characteristic[*] columns to any material block shouldn’t result in any problems.

    • Please refrain from manually adding Parameter Value[*] columns in process blocks.

    • Please refrain from adding any other type of column. However, feel free to discuss/request additional columns upfront, in particular if they might be reasonable general addition to the templates.

  • Pooling and splitting
    • Make sure repeated materials/processes include not only the same identifier but also the same metadata, i.e. same values in Characteristic[*], Parameter Value[*] and Comment[*] columns, etc.

  • Processes
    • When adding more rows, fill up Protocol REF columns with previous values.

    • Don’t remove values in Protocol REF fields of used rows.

    • Remove values in Protocol REF fields of unused rows.

  • Ontology
    • Don’t manually fill out the ontology columns Term Source REF and Term Accession Number.

    • Values in potential ontology columns will be checked and linked in our postprocessing, if applicable.

  • Special characters
    • If the encoding of the file is corrupted, special characters (e.g. as in “μmol”) might be faulty as well.

    • As this is difficult to assess/avoid manually, please just indicate any use of special characters when sending the file to us for validation.

We will extend this list with more rules/restrictions as soon as more pitfalls show up.

3. Validation (Post-Processing)

Under good circumstances, a direct upload to the corresponding SODAR project may be successful already. Feel free to give it try (see 4. Uploading). Otherwise, the upload may fail due to invalid ISA-Tab files based on various reasons. Thus, you can send the data to us for validation, corrections (if necessary) and optional post-processing.

Post-processing may include i.a. the association of potential ontology terms with appropriate ontology identifier and sources.

4. Uploading

Uploading metadata into a SODAR project can be facilitated by CUBI (e.g. after validation) or any project member with appropriate role (owner, delegate, or contributor).

To upload sample sheets into SODAR, first navigate into the Sample Sheets application within the corresponding project. In the Sheet Operations dropdown, select Import ISA-Tab. If you are replacing existing sheets in the project, this option will appear as Replace ISA-Tab.

In the import form, the ISA-Tab TSV files can either be imported as separate files, or a Zip archive containing all of the files in the same directory.


When using Microsoft Windows, please note that the built-in Zip archiver will fail to properly handle ISA-Tab files due to naming conventions. We recommend NanaZip for working with ISA-Tab Zip archives under Windows.

After uploading, it is recommended to compare and validate the number of study and assay rows between the SODAR project and ISA-Tab files to exclude mistakes in metadata recording, in particular with respect to splitting and pooling.