The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), feeling that television was a disposable, ephemeral medium, junked many tapes of television series like Doctor Who. They even junked notable ones like the first episode of Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor facing the best known and most popular villains of the entire series.
Archiving is a tricky thing.
The card game Legend of the Five Rings is about 15 years old. But it’s almost impossible to find material about the game’s influential first couple of years. A lot of key discussion happened on a company email listerv. The one copy someone from the company was keeping was lost when a hard drive crashed.
I went looking for a podcast of a story I’d heard on Quirks and Quarks about singing mice. I wanted to listen to the audio again. But their online archive goes back to 2006, and the story I remembered was from November 2005.
You might think. “Well, that’s just pop culture,” but the same issue plague science. Physicist Slava Turyshev, who is working on the Pioneer spacecraft, noted:
To study the Pioneer anomaly we needed the probe’s navigational data. But mission tapes were normally saved for only a few months and then thrown away, so you’re lucky if you can find what you need.
Today, some experiments generate so much data that chucking the data away is a necessary part of the process because we just can’t keep it all. This happens at the Large Hadron Collider, for instance.
Just as I posted this, I learned a personal subscription to Nature only gets you papers back to 1997.
I mention these because one of the ideas to reform the scientific publishing enterprise is one where journals are removed from the picture entirely. Scientific communication should be replaced by blogs and self archiving, according to some. This is not a vision I can get behind, because I’ve hung around with taxonomists.
Björn Brembs argues that libraries can effectively take the place of journals. That is certainly an improvement over self-archiving, though I think we have a long way to go on that front. At our institution, one enterprising librarian started an institutional repository for faculty, where we could deposit not only our reprints, but more ephemeral work like conference posters.
But she quit. And since then, I’m not even sure who, if anyone, is in charge of the repository. It’s been a while since I deposited anything there.
While I personally plan to live forever, in the remote chance that some accident occurs where I don’t, how can I make sure my scientific contributions are available to researchers one hundred years from now? Two hundred? Three? Sticking my own PDFs on my own university server is not going to cut it. I can’t control what happens to my papers after my death. Maintaining the scientific record needs to be done by communities and institutions, not individuals.
Hat tip: This grew in part out of a conversation that bubbled up over at Living in an Ivory Basement.