As Technology Advances Old Data Gets Lost

New research shows that an alarming rate of data is lost as storage technologies advance

A new study conducted at the University of British Columbia, Canada has found that almost 80 percent of scientific data is lost within two decades after its publication. Scientists are not inclined to backup their data in a reliable manner, states a paper on the research published in Current Biology yesterday. The researchers warn that this loss of data can delay further scientific research and wastes research money.

Timothy Vines, visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia, Canada and lead author of the study, calls for urgent policy change to enhance research data storage. Backup should be made at the point of publication and it should be shared through public archives. In richer countries, where technology quickly becomes obsolete, the inability to access old datasets is especially serious.

“People in America and Europe have used floppy discs for many years but they do not have access to these any more. In countries where resources are more limited, they may hold onto these technologies for longer and that could mean that they are more likely to be able to access to their data,” says Vines.

Between 1991 and 2011, the researchers collected a randomized set of 516 published papers. From the second year after their publication, the chances of obtaining the underlying data sets decreased by 17 percent per year and the ability to find a working email address for the authors’ papers decreased by seven percent each year. Vines thinks this is likely to be a worldwide issue over time.

“Collecting that data the first time cost money. If you need those results now and they are not available, you will have to use research funds to collect them again. It is much more efficient to make sure you preserve the initial data set,” he says. “Ecological data, which was collected in a specific time and place, are irreplaceable, as you can’t go back to that time and place and collect them again. Once it’s gone, that data is lost forever.”


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