Storing and Preserving Your Scientific Data
Perhaps you're finally ready to start writing that paper or thesis, or maybe you're rethinking a hypothesis and need to refer back to the results of an earlier experiment. There's just one problem: Where is the data?
Most scientists have experienced the frustrating search for archived research data, whether it’s from a long-departed lab member, from a time before you established a filing system, or on a misplaced storage device. The resulting costs can include wasting time searching through hard drives, needing to repeat experiments, and the worst case scenario—losing data from an irreplaceable sample.
Storing your experimental data in an organized manner is vital for helping you and your collaborators efficiently access the information your research is founded on. Securely storing your data is also a simple, yet smart practice to protect against mishaps and ensure that lab members will have access even long after your research project is completed.
Follow these tips to organize and protect your research findings.
Back Up Your Data in Multiple Locations
If you have ever lost your research data, whether due to hard drive failure, a lost USB flash drive, or some other means, you know the importance of backing up your electronic data on more than one platform.
Instead of only storing your data on your internal hard drive, be sure to back it up regularly on an external hard drive. Traditional hard disk drives offer cheap capacity, but for added security, consider investing in a solid-state drive. Since solid-state drives do not have any moving parts they tend to be more durable and reliable than hard disk drives. The read and write speeds are also significantly faster on solid-state drives, allowing you to rapidly access your documents.
Whichever storage medium you choose, there is always a chance that your data will become corrupted on your local hard drive.
For added reassurance, consider backing up your data using cloud storage, such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Cloud storage also allows you to access your data from anywhere you have an internet connection. One caveat: Cloud storage does not come without security risks, so think twice before you store sensitive data in the cloud and consider encrypting it. You should also check your institutes rules and policies on using cloud-based storage.
Use a Shared Online Drive
In addition to protecting against physical data corruption, cloud and online storage can be employed when storing data that needs to be accessed by several people. Cloud-based storage is particularly useful when you’re working with external collaborators who do not have access to your network, or when lab members need to access documents remotely. Storing protocols and scientific papers on a common online drive also serves as a centralized storage location and resource for all lab members and helps keep paper clutter in the lab to a minimum. As with cloud-based storage, be sure to follow your institutes policies on setting up and using shared online drives.
Develop a Systematic Electronic Filing System
Whether you’re storing electronic documents on a personal drive or a shared drive, it is important to develop a structured filing system that’s intuitive and easy to adopt.
- Develop a systematic, logical naming convention, e.g. with the date and a descriptive title, and use it consistently.
- Create a strategic hierarchy for folders. Start with a few folders for broad topics and create specific folders within these.
- Include a draft or revision label at the end of each file name so you can keep track of changes.
- Before analyzing or manipulating your data, create a copy of the original file and label it as such to ensure that you won’t lose your raw data.
How to Organize Your Lab Notebooks, References, and Protocols
Increase your efficiency in the lab by keeping your lab notebook organized.
Maintain Your Lab Notebook
Even with the increasing adoption of electronic devices in the lab, physical lab notebooks remain a stalwart method for recording experimental details.
Keeping your lab notebook organized will make it easier for you to refer back to your work and help anyone who needs extra information about your research data.
Use the following tips to organize and protect the data in your lab notebook:
- Store your lab notebook away from the lab bench and any areas where there is a risk of spills or damage.
- Routinely scan your lab notebook, save the file as a PDF, and store it on a central drive.
- Consider storing your lab notebook in a fireproof file cabinet.
- Reserve the first page for your table of contents and update it each time you start a new section.
- Include dates, page numbers, and descriptive titles on every page so you can quickly refer back to specific pages or experiments.
- Prepare electronic, printable templates for experiments you perform often, and paste these into your lab notebook. Share templates for common protocols (e.g. buffer recipes, blank results tables) with your colleagues.
Organizing and carefully storing your research data allows you to work smart and protect your valuable research data. By investing in preserving your data now, you can potentially save yourself time in the future and make things easier for anyone who continues your research going forward.
Another way you can work smart is by adopting more efficient technologies.