Love Your Data Week: Keep Your Data Safe

Welcome to our series of Love Your Data Week posts!  Each day this week, in connection with the Love Your Data campaign on social media, a UM librarian will be blogging about a different data-related topic, sharing personal anecdotes and tips that you can use to improve your own research data practices.  To kick things off, I’m writing today about data safety.

My personal “aha!” moment for data safety came in 2013, when I attended a presentation by Western University librarians Lise Doucette and Bruce Fyfe at the ACRL conference in Indianapolis.  They presented results of a survey of Canadian graduate students in science and social sciences regarding their data management practices.  Of their 360 respondents, 14.2% indicated that a data loss had forced them to re-collect data for a project.  Even more disturbing, 17.2% indicated that they had lost a file and could not re-collect the data.  Project those numbers out across the total population of academic researchers, and we’re talking about a colossal loss of research time - not to mention research dollars! - due to lost data.

Fortunately, there are a few simple guidelines that can greatly reduce the chances of this sort of catastrophic loss.  Take a few minutes to think about how you could implement these steps in your own research workflow:

  • Follow the 3-2-1 rule for backing up your data: store at least 3 copies of each file (1 working copy and 2 backups), using 2 different storage media (hard drive, USB drive, DVD-R, online/cloud storage) with at least 1 offsite copy (stored in a different physical location from your working copy).
  • Make a plan for regular backups and stick to it!  Set calendar reminders, make a spreadsheet to log your backups, schedule a Friday-afternoon coffee-and-backup break with your lab or research team - whatever will help you stay on top of your backup schedule.
  • Test your backups periodically - a backup copy that fails to open is useless.  Even if your backups function perfectly, you should plan to refresh them by copying the files to new drives or DVDs on a regular basis; this helps avoid loss of data due to aging of the storage medium.
  • Consider encrypting your backups.  If you’re storing potentially sensitive personal data (check U-M’s Sensitive Data Guide if you’re not sure), using password-protected encryption will help to guarantee the privacy of your research subjects.  Even if your research doesn’t involve sensitive personal data, you might want to encrypt to reduce the chances of theft, premature release, or malicious damage.  Just make sure that you’ve got a spare copy of your encryption password stored in a secure location!   

Consulting about data safety best practices is just one aspect of the research data services that the Library can provide for you.  Interested in learning more?  Email, or contact your subject subject librarian and let her/him know that you’re interested in a data consultation.

Scott Martin is the Biological Sciences liaison at the Shapiro Science Library at the University of Michigan.  He also chairs the UM Library’s Data Education Working Group, which provides professional development opportunities for UM librarians interested in learning more about research data from a librarian perspective.