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1 July 2011 On Preserving Knowledge
Leslie N. Carraway
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New knowledge in science is built on previous knowledge. Thus, the primary purpose of preserving scientific knowledge is that future scientists will be able collate said knowledge years from now to answer questions not yet asked. Secondarily, if preserved, datasets associated with published research papers could be compared to or combined with datasets collected by future scientists. This will lessen the need to repeat research and will allow examination of what and how environments, and communities and populations of living organisms have changed over time. My concerns regarding the preservation of scientific knowledge—particularly published papers—for use by future researchers are not just that such knowledge continues to exist for a few generations of scientists, but that it survives in perpetuity in accessible formats. Loss of publications containing interpretations based on data and previous knowledge is as critical if not more so than just the loss of data to the continuity of scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, knowledge and datasets are not synonymous; however, they are integrally linked because it takes some of one to produce the other. Reconstructing an event or establishing the history of some unit of knowledge can be extraordinarily labor- and time-intensive in the print world, but it is possible. In the digital world, we can use search engines to hasten the process; however, this just lulls us into a false sense of security. Whereas properly archived acid-free paper has the potential of lasting forever, digital media lacks that potential. Material “stored” on an Internet website may seem permanent, but that permanence is merely an illusion. Knowledge on the Internet is only as secure as there are people, scientific societies, corporations or government agencies willing to maintain websites and pay for the cost of the website presence. Scientists must demand of scientific societies and publishers of their journals that not only should published papers be archived in perpetuity, but that datasets used to produce those manuscripts also be archived in perpetuity in such a manner that other scientists can understand what data are present. The perpetual, not just short-term, future of scientists' ability to access, collate and rethink the determined knowledge of past scientists is dependent on the actions of members of scientific societies to convince the general public, universities, corporations and government agencies that it is essential to guard against the loss of knowledge that otherwise will have to be rediscovered.

Leslie N. Carraway "On Preserving Knowledge," The American Midland Naturalist 166(1), 1-12, (1 July 2011).
Received: 13 December 2010; Accepted: 1 February 2011; Published: 1 July 2011

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