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Research Data Declines Rapidly with Article age

By BiotechDaily International staff writers
Posted on 30 Dec 2013
A new study reveals that the vast majority of raw data from old studies is missing, making the reproducibility of results, a cornerstone of science, unavailable.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), Université Laval (Canada), and other institutions requested data sets from the authors of a relatively homogenous set of 516 articles published between 2 and 22 years ago, finding that the availability of the data was strongly affected by article age. For papers where the authors gave the status of their data, the odds of a data set being extant fell by 17% per year. As a result, more 90% of the oldest data were inaccessible, and even in papers published as recently as 2011, they were only able to track down the data for 23% of the studies.

In addition, the odds that the researchers could even locate a working e-mail address for the first, last, or corresponding author fell by 7% per year. Defunct addresses were listed on the paper itself, with web searches not turning up any current ones. For another 38% of studies, the researcher’s queries led to no response. And even when they received a reply, access to another7% of the data sets was inaccessible, or the data itself was lost. The study was published on December 19, 2013, in Current Biology.

“Everybody kind of knows that if you ask a researcher for data from old studies, they’ll hem and haw, because they don’t know where it is,” said lead author zoologist Timothy Vines, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. “Some of the time, for instance, it was saved on three-and-a-half inch floppy disks, so no one could access it, because they no longer had the proper drives.”

“Because the basic idea of keeping data is so that it can be used by others in future research, this sort of obsolescence essentially renders the data useless,” added Dr. Vines. “Our results reinforce the notion that, in the long term, research data cannot be reliably preserved by individual researchers, and further demonstrate the urgent need for policies mandating data sharing via public archives.”

Preserving raw data is important because it is impossible to predict in which directions research will move in the future. Dr. Vines, for instance, has been conducting research on a pair of toad species native to Eastern Europe that seem to be in the process of hybridizing. In the 1980s, a separate team of researchers was working on the same topic, and came across an old paper written in Polish that documented the distribution of the toads in the 1930s. Knowing that their distribution had changed relatively little over the intervening decades allowed the scientists to make calculations that would not have been possible otherwise.

Related Links:

University of British Columbia
Université Laval



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