Skip to main content

A UBC study has found that obsolete storage devices are causing the loss of valuable data.

Getty Images/Comstock Images

A University of British Columbia researcher was studying the effect of global warming on plants when she needed data that were about five decades old to compare with recently gathered information.

Lizzie Wolkovich wanted to determine how global warming was affecting plant populations, but was not able to access some of the data three years ago.

Her experience illustrates the all-too-common loss of scientific data, which has now been examined in a study by University of B.C. researcher Tim Vines.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Vines, of UBC's zoology department, examined 516 international zoological studies archived in the school's biodiversity centre and found that the data were inaccessible because of faulty contact information and obsolete storage devices.

He said many professors list e-mail addresses as their preferred method of contact, but they are often outdated within a few years.

Dr. Vines said the data are lost when the contact information becomes obsolete because professors are often the only ones keeping them, and that storage devices such as floppy disks become out of date.

It takes a lot of effort to retrieve information from obsolete devices, and it usually does not end up happening, he said.

"They're not going to go through the length to get you the data, so the data's effectively unavailable – it's effectively lost."

The loss of scientific data is a huge waste of research funds and the information should be archived online to preserve it, he said.

In Dr. Wolkovich's case, she knew that one set of data spanning 15 years and collected by a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher named Melvin McCarty would be valuable to her research.

Story continues below advertisement

But when she tried getting ahold of the man, she learned he had died and that none of his colleagues or friends knew how to retrieve the information.

"I think there's been an issue," Dr. Wolkovich said, "of people not recognizing the value of data – especially back then.

"If only we had known, and people were trying harder to protect this data, we'd have a lot more information on what's going on with global climate change."

Dr. Vines's study is published in the journal Current Biology.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter