Accessing digital legacies (experimental ones, too)

By Grant Jacobs 08/02/2011

A short article issued by NZPA urges New Zealanders to give greater consideration for the ever-increasing amount of digital legacy they leave behind when they die, pointing out that site names and passwords are needed to access to them.

Lest you think this completely trivial, backups can be stored ‘into the cloud’ or on dedicated backup servers, as one less frivolous example.

What of scientists’ electronic legacies?

Their personal e-notebooks, data, software, what-have-you.[2]

Alfred Nobel's will, endowing the Nobel Prize (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Alfred Nobel’s will, endowing the Nobel Prize (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

You could add non-digital legacies, too, such as cultures or biochemical samples. Scientists from other fields will want to fill the list in with appropriate things from their field. Note this is personal stuff, not the communal stuff (although there may be issues there, too).

Many scientists probably feel their unpublished ‘scraps’ wouldn’t be worth the trouble, but for those who head teams the abrupt (or otherwise) loss of the PI (principal investigator) must be quite a blow to the work underway. Let’s assume the material is wanted or needed.

Are others able to get a hold of them? What’s the password to the computer? Are there instructions as to what data is stored where?

How meaningful would the stuff be in an other person’s hands? Some things would be because they simply ‘are’ but notes, for example, I suspect often more jog the memory than spell things out in enough detail for another reader to use, unless perhaps they are already very familiar with the person’s thinking and research.

In my own experience digital data is hopeless unless it’s carefully self-documented. As you might guess I advocate the use of self-documenting file formats and practices, whether the material be data, software or notes.

Besides purely digital stuff, can everyone–or anyone–make sense of those cryptic labels on the samples in the -20˚C freezer without asking the PI?[1]

Share your thoughts in the comments.

As a computational biology consultant I don’t run an experimental laboratory, nor head a (large) team, nor do I fall under the rules of some large research organisation (commercial or academic), so the issues for me will be different to that of most of my readers. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say.


[1] This is not a very good example. (Readers are welcome to offer a better one.) Few PIs have hands-on time so it’s more likely samples and labels are from a student or post-doc… who has since moved on to another laboratory. There are enough laboratory stories to show this different setting can be (or is…) a problem without losing the PI!

Other articles on Code for life:

On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go”

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Desk Guide for Covering Science, and academic conferences

Dictionaries, the OED, and what do you use?

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media