Archiving legacy data, or “Why is Dryad better than a floppy disk?”

If you have recently published data in Dryad, chances are it was in the course of publishing an article at a partner journal that steered you our way.

But you may be aware that Dryad accepts data from any peer-reviewed article in biology or biomedicine.  That includes journals that are not (at least not yet) partners.  In fact, as of the the time of writing, Dryad has data associated with articles in 79 journals, approximately four times the number of partners.

Dryad even accepts data from articles that have already been published.  Now, why might you wish to go to the trouble of rummaging through those old files and putting your legacy data online?

Well, we noticed a while back that some individuals were beginning to do this systematically.  For example, there was a sudden influx of data packages with Frédéric Delsuc’s name on them a little while back.  Delsuc, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Université Montpellier, is a member of an international team of collaborators (from France, Norway, Canada, Spain, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States) that has been using DNA sequence data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of a wide range of vertebrates and vertebrate relatives, from anteaters to sea squirts.

Giant Anteaters

Giant Anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). The pup clinging to his mother is Cyrano, who was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 2009. Photo credit: Mehgan Murphy, CC-BY-NC-ND, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

So far, Delsuc and his team [1] have deposited data from 20 articles in Dryad. The articles are in partner journals such as Molecular Biology and Evolution, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Systematic Biology, as well as more general science journals such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

The articles stretch back to 2002, a time when most new desktop computers were still being outfitted with floppy drives. (Remember those?)

We asked Delsuc what he saw as the advantages to archiving his team’s heritage of legacy data?

We […] decided in our team to try to systematically submit our datasets to Dryad because we really think they are valuable. Dryad offers a very nice way of archiving the data ensuring their durability over time.

For Delsuc and his team, no more rummaging through old storage devices to find the files when they receive an email request.  No more worrying about the data when  lab or departmental websites move.  They just need to point their colleagues to Dryad.

It has been reported that the number one reason cited when scientists are asked why they have denied their colleagues’ requests for data in the past was the amount of effort required to dig them up [2].  Delsuc’s and his team intuitively understood that, and went back to archive their data before memories faded, storage devices failed, and graduate students moved on.

The downside to archiving legacy data in this way is that an article’s readers won’t immediately know about the existence of the Dryad data package, since the data DOI will not be published within the text. So, while archiving legacy data has its advantages, there is no substitute for depositing the data before the article is published, as Dryad does with the new articles appearing in its partner journals.

To give Delsuc the final word:

It would be great if more and more journals in the field decide to include data deposit in their publication policies.

[1] Equipe Phylogénie et Evolution Moléculaire” (Phylogeny and Molecular Evolution team) of the Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution (Institute of Evolutionary Sciences), part of the CNRS: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (French National Centre for Scientific Research) and the Université Montpellier 2 (University of Montpellier 2).

[2] Campbell EG et al. (2002) Data Withholding in Academic Genetics: Evidence From a National Survey. JAMA 287(4):473-480. doi:10.1001/jama.287.4.473

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