Sustainability (aka. Passing the Hit-by-a-Bus Test)

I’m finally back at work after a three-month maternity leave and trying to catch up on everything that I missed while I was home with the little one. It’s going fairly smoothly, mostly because I was able to do a lot of planning before I left.

Having time to plan ahead and fairly strict deadline is definitely a benefit of taking maternity leave. But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how this doesn’t always happen. For example, what happens if you suddenly get sick and can’t work for a while? In the worst case, your research could be retracted because you aren’t available to answer questions about the work.

All this has me thinking about sustainability. Basically, does your data pass the hit-by-a-bus test? I’ve had several conversations with my data peers on this topic in the last year and thought it worth exploring a little on the blog.

So how can you make sure your data lives on if you suddenly can’t work for a while? Or if you take a new job? Or if you actually get hit by a bus?

Documentation is probably the single most important piece of data sustainability. Not only should your notes be understandable to someone “trained in the art”, but it’s also a good idea to add some documentation to your digital files – I love README.txt‘s for this. You should document enough for someone (including your future self once you recover from the bus) to pick up exactly where you left off without taking weeks to decipher your work. And don’t forget about code and procedures.

There’s also a technical side to sustainability. Take file types, for example. Will your data live on outside of that weird software that only your lab uses? Making sure that your data is stored properly and well backed up also matters. Data shouldn’t be put on an external hard drive and forgotten.

Finally, ask yourself ‘what is the worst that can happen’? This will vary from researcher to researcher, but thinking about this question will let you do a little disaster planning. It might lead to training a coworker on taking care of your animals or taking extra precautions with your specialized equipment, whatever you need to do to make sure your work survives.

You may never get run over by that fictitious bus, but it can still be a useful exercise to think about sustainability. At the very least, you make your research more robust and easier to pick up if you need to go back to it in the future. At the worst, your research will be one less thing to worry about if things take a turn for the worst.