Why You Should Floss

No, I won’t be discussing proper oral hygiene. What I mean by “flossing” is actually “backing up your data”.  Why the floss analogy? Here are the similarities between flossing in backing up your data:

  1. It’s undisputed that it’s important
  2. Most people don’t do it as often as they should
  3. You lie (to yourself, or your dentist) about how often you do it

Oral (and data) hygiene can be fun! From Calisphere, courtesy of UC Berkeley Bancroft Library

So think about backing up similarly to the way you think about flossing:  you probably aren’t doing it enough.  In this post, I will provide a general guidance about backing up your data; as always, the advice will vary greatly depending on the types of data you are generating, how often they change, and what computational resources are available to you.

First, create multiple copies in multiple locations.  The old rule of thumb is original, near, far.  The first copy is your working copy of data; the second copy is kept near your original (this is most likely an external hard drive or thumb drive); the third is kept far from your original (off site, such as at home or on a server outside of your office building).  This is the important part: all three of these copies should be up-to-date.  Which brings me to my second point.

Second, back up your data more often.  I have had many conversations with scientists over the last few months, and I always ask, “How do you back up your data?”  Answers range, but most of them scare me silly.  For instance, there was a 5th year graduate student who had all of her data on a six-year-old laptop, and only backed up once a month.  I get heart palpitations just typing that sentence.  Other folks have said things like “I use my external drive to back things up once every couple of months”, or worst case scenario, “I know I should, but I just don’t back up”.  It is strongly recommended that you back up every day. It’s a pain, right? There are two very easy ways to back up every day, and neither require any purchasing of hardware or software: (1) Keep a copy on Dropbox, or (2) Email yourself the data file as an attachment.  Note: these suggestions are not likely to work for large data sets.

Third, find out what resources are available to you. Institutions are becoming aware of the importance of good backup and data storage systems, which means there might be ways for you to back up your data regularly with minimal effort.  Check with your department or campus IT folks and ask about server space and automated backup service. If server space and/or backing up isn’t available, consider joining forces with other scientists to purchase servers for backing up (this is an option for professors more often than graduate students).

Finally, ensure that your backup plan is working.  This is especially important if others are in charge of data backup.  If your lab group has automated backup to a common computer, check to be sure your data are there, in full, and readable.  Ensure that the backup is actually occurring as regularly as you think it is.  More generally, you should be sure that if your laptop dies, or your office is flooded, or your home is burgled, you will be able to recover your data in full.

For more information on backing up, check out the DataONE education module “Protected back-ups”

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