We call this the “Information Age”, don’t we? Yet several news items I’ve come across this week show that a huge amount of important information is in real danger of vanishing forever, some by neglect and accident, much by willful disregard.
First there came the revelation this month that as much as eighty percent of the data from research studies conducted over the past couple of decades has been unintentionally lost by being sent to no-longer-active email accounts and trusted to electronic storage devices that became outdated and inaccessible, or were replaced but not fully copied. It’s not hard to see how this could happen. How many times have you upgraded a hard drive but accidentally or deliberately left some files behind? In fact, how many files have you saved to CD or even floppy disks, confident that you could always retrieve them later? University of British Columbia researchers tried to access original data from more than five hundred randomly-chosen ecology studies conducted between 1991 and 2011, and found that data usually remained fully accessible for the first two years after publication, but the chances of finding it thereafter declined by 17% with each year that passed. The researchers blame the fact that such data remains in the hands of the original conductors of the research, and so they’re calling for centralized data archives to which all published research data would by transferred and kept. Great idea, but there’s a problem with it, which brings us to the next story.
We have archives of research data already—they’re called libraries. Unfortunately, since many of them are publicly funded, their continued existence remains at the whim of the serving government. In Canada we have a long-reigning conservative government that is a proven enemy of science. Don’t take my word for it—look it up, but keep a box of Kleenex handy. One of their most recent efforts is to close a half-dozen world-renowned research libraries. The government claims that the data in the libraries is being digitized and preserved. Scientists and library staff are saying this is not true: the information is simply being culled and what isn’t deemed worth transporting to the few libraries remaining open is scrapped. Scientists have been scrambling to save irreplaceable volumes destined for the dumpster.
None of us has a crystal ball. We can’t know what old information we will one day need as a baseline for comparison to a new set of circumstances. Many important natural and social trends only become evident after the analysis of data from very long periods of time. The unintentional loss of data is regrettable and can be stopped. The willful destruction of data is unconscionable and must be stopped. Canadians have protested such government cutbacks without success. The rest of the world needs to take notice and shame the Canadian government into stopping this practice, and send a message to any other governments who might consider such a policy. Before the information age is returned to a much darker time in our history.