The Digital Dark Age, Part 2

Earlier this week I blogged about the concept of a Digital Dark Age.  This is a phrase that some folks are using to describe some future scenario where we are not able to read historical digital documents and multimedia because they have been rendered obsolete or were otherwise poorly archived.  But what does this mean for scientific data?

Consider that Charles Darwin’s notebooks were recently scanned and made available online.  This was possible because they were properly stored and archived, in a long-lasting format (in this case, on paper).  Imagine if he had taken pictures of his finch beaks with a camera and saved the digital images in obsolete formats.  Or ponder a scenario where he had used proprietary software to create his famous Tree of Life sketch.  Would we be able to unlock those digital formats today?  Probably not.  We might have lost those important pieces of scientific history forever.   Although it seems like software programs such as Microsoft Excel and MATLAB will be around forever, people probably said similar things about the programs Lotus 1-2-3 and iWeb.

darwin by diana sudyka

“Darwin with Finches” by Diana Sudyka, from Flickr by Karen E James

It is a common misconception that things that are posted on the internet will be around “forever”.  While that might be true of embarrassing celebrity photos, it is much less likely to be true for things like scientific data.  This is especially the case if data are kept on a personal/lab website or archived as supplemental material, rather than being archived in a public repository (See Santos, Blake and States 2005 for more information).  Consider the fact that 10% of data published as supplemental material in the six top-cited journals was not available a mere five years later (Evangelou, Trikalinos, and Ioannidis, 2005).

Natalie Ceeney, chief executive of the National Archives, summed it up best in this quote from The Guardian’s 2007 piece on preventing a Digital Dark Age: “Digital information is inherently far more ephemeral than paper.”

My next post and final DDA installment will provide tips on how to avoid losing your data to the dark side.

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