Archaeologists and zoologists skeptical about data preservation

When archaeologists excavate a site and remove artifacts, they forever change the landscape they are exploring. When a zoologist captures and dissects a deep sea tuna, she inevitably destroys the specimen being analyzed.

If a scientist must irrevocably alter or destroy something in order to study it, collecting and preserving the data that surrounds the object of study would seem to be of particular importance. Yet in the fields of study, archaeology and zoology, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Information and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) have found that data preservation sometimes takes a back seat to data collection.

In their study of 49 archaeologists and zoologists, the researchers found that while scientists were aware of the need to preserve both the artifact/specimens and the contextual information required to make sense of data over time, data collection and analysis concerns still trumped data preservation in terms of time and attention. 

For example, one zoologist noted that he has control over data quality but not preservation. “I can’t go back and make sure that the preservation process was correct. But what I can do is [know] the data I collect is accurate.”

While the attention to contextual data is good news for repositories, capturing contextual data in a standardized and usable form for preservation and subsequent use is difficult given the data management practices of researchers. This puts the burden on repositories to develop and maintain standards after the data has been collected.

The authors of the study found that neither the zoologists nor the archaeologists saw long term preservation as their responsibility. Members in both disciplines viewed museums and repositories as responsible for addressing preservation issues.  But researchers were also skeptical that digital data could be preserved long-term. “I guess you start to get more jaded about the permanence of anything having to do with technology that’s changing so rapidly,” one archaeologist said.

Three external factors--funding, legal requirements, and the status of museums and repositories—influenced the scientists’ attitudes toward preservation. While archaeologists and zoologists are uniquely positioned to appreciate the value of data preservation, because data collection in both disciplines involves destruction, they are skeptical about whether preservation is possible and that their attitudes are influenced by both internal and external factors.

“Destruction/Reconstruction: Preservation of Archaeological & Zoological Research” has just been published in a special digital curation issue of Archival Science. The authors are Rebecca D. Frank and Elizabeth Yakel (University of Michigan School of Information) and Ixchel M. Faniel (OCLC Research). This research was made possible by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

The paper is available to download here.

Posted on June 2, 2015