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Scientists losing data at a rapid rate

2 1 trendwatch (2)In their parents’ attic, in boxes in the garage, or stored on now-defunct floppy disks — these are just some of the inaccessible places in which scientists have admitted to keeping their old research data. Such practices mean that data are being lost to science at a rapid rate, a study has now found.

The authors of the study, which is published today in Current Biology1, looked for the data behind 516 ecology papers published between 1991 and 2011. The researchers selected studies that involved measuring characteristics associated with the size and form of plants and animals, something that has been done in the same way for decades. By contacting the authors of the papers, they found that, whereas data for almost all studies published just two years ago were still accessible, the chance of them being so fell by 17% per year. Availability dropped to as little as 20% for research from the early 1990s.

“Most of the time, researchers said ‘it’s probably in this or that location’, such as their parents’ attic, or on a zip drive for which they haven’t seen the hardware in 15 years,” says Timothy Vines, the lead author on the study and an evolutionary ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “In theory, the data still exist, but the time and effort required by the researcher to get them to you is prohibitive.”

Another challenge was simply tracking down authors and receiving a response, something at which the team was successful in just 37% of cases. The likelihood of being able to find a working e-mail address, even after an extensive online search, declined by 7% per year. Meanwhile, only around half of the authors with valid addresses responded to the requests, however old the paper.

Click here to read more from this December 19, 2013 Nature article by Elizabeth Gibney and Richard Van Noorden.

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