The problem of preserving important information

Timothy Vines recently led a research effort to try and determine how quickly the source data (and thus justification) for scientific research becomes inaccessible. The answer: it proved impossible to source the data for 77 per cent of the 516 studies investigated, which were published between 1991 and 2011. The major reasons:

  • 25 percent of the studies had no active email addresses, with defunct addresses listed on the paper itself and web searches not turning up any current ones
  • No response was forthcoming for queries about 38 percent of studies
  • 7 percent of the data sets were lost or inaccessible

Admittedly, "40% of researchers aren't good at answering emails" isn't as sexy an outcome as "80% of data is lost forever", but the point remains: When a project finishes, those intimately involved with it always move on (either physically or mentally). But if the results of that project are important, someone needs to take responsibility for it.

Ultimately, the people with the greatest vested interest in preserving the research are those who funded it, directly or indirectly. But preserving research information for some undetermined future use costs money, and there's a tendency to always prefer funding projects instead of seeking to preserve what's already known.

The problem is that if people are unaware of past research, there's (a) a much greater chance of research duplication, and (b) a much smaller chance that people will find it and actually take up its findings.

This is becoming a pressing issue among more forward-looking organisations. knowquestion has commenced a project with a significant source of research funding in Australia to try and address this problem, and it's an exciting development.

Preservation has often been the forgotten part of research. But the reality is that the less that knowledge is available to others, the less value it delivers. Ensuring availability is just as important a responsibility for funding bodies as facilitating the research itself.

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