How Do You Manage Your Research Data?


Results and Analysis of BioData’s Laboratory Management Survey

In a survey commissioned by BioData, 94 researchers from 74 institutions worldwide were asked a series of questions regarding their management of research data. The survey’s purpose was to learn about and prove the need for knowledge management systems in academic research. 80% of the researchers surveyed believe their labs are not run efficiently.

William Noble, associate professor in the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington recently published “A Quick Guide to Organizing Computational Biology Projects,” an article dealing with management of data related to the bioinformatics field. When one thinks about managing laboratory data, it can be overwhelming to think of all the files, graphs, images, and results that come with every experiment. Noble explains that while organizing files and documenting progress seem mundane, “These issues are important because poor organizational choices can lead to significantly slower research progress.”

Over the past two years, BioData has worked with over 30 research groups providing them with a research management service. Dr. Noble may be referring to actual management of files and folder, but we have learned that having a systematic way of organizing results and data, promotes research and makes the lab a more pleasant work place.

Data Organization

Data organization is key to saving time and frustration when you don’t have to waste time looking for where you stored everything. As one frustrated PhD student expressed, “I have got so much data on a thousand different machines… and I cannot keep track of it all. I do not remember what I save to what or where it is, whether I’ve backed it up or not. Anytime I’m getting ready for a conference, presentation, or review I spend hours and hours just trying to find everything! Everything else in my life is overly organized except the one thing that is most important—my RESEARCH! I dread having to write my thesis because I don’t think I’ll be able to find all my data…” If your data is organized and stored in one place, it is easy to keep track of and access whenever you need it.

Another reason why data organization is so important, Noble explains, is that “someone unfamiliar with your project should be able to look at your computer files and understand in detail what you did and why.” As one researcher told us, “… Each lab is left to its own devices to archive data and institutional knowledge. As per usual, experiments get repeated as grad students graduate and new ones come in…” When a new researcher joins the lab, they can easily see what you worked on, so time and money is saved by not having repeat experiments conducted. Noble cites other people who may be interested in viewing your laboratory data: “This ‘someone’ could be any of a variety of people: someone who read your published article and wants to try to reproduce your work, a collaborator who wants to understand the details of your experiments, a future student working in your lab who wants to extend your work after you have moved on to a new job, your research advisor, who may be interested in understanding your work or who may be evaluating your research skills.” The most important person, Noble points out is your data needs to be organized, for yourself because after a couple of months, your likely to forget details and “you will either have to then spend time reconstructing your previous experiments or lose whatever insights you gained from those experiments.”

Keeping all of your data in context is hard. We see researchers running three to five experiments concurrently, spending hours on collecting results – but neglect to document it properly. Documenting data may seem like a tedious, wasteful step, but each researcher must think of its long-term benefits, as it is the one of the main qualities seen in organized labs

Data also has to be accessible and stored securely. 56% of the researchers surveyed stored their data on a hard drive. There is a problem with storing data in one place, as many learned the hard way from Hurricane Katrina, when an incredible amount of data was lost. One researcher from New Orleans’ Tulane University pointed out, “Before Hurricane Katrina, there was no backup system at all. Now, they issued everyone a 80GB external drive and gave them stern warnings that there would be no rescue missions for hard drives if another levee breach occurred… Surely we can do better than this.”

Online Data Storage

Noble suggests storing data online, as hard drives cannot be accessed once you are out of the lab, and as another researcher pointed out “I think there should be online storage of research data … so when ever you have time you can analyze your data.” In fact, 80% of researchers said they would store data online in a secure server, with many expressing concerns about security, citing a need for “a rock solid privacy policy and some serious security.”

We learned from this survey that many are in need of an online knowledge management tool that is safe and secure. While the importance of data organization may have been overlooked, researchers are now becoming more aware of its role in running an efficient and productive lab.

BioData is committed to helping researchers in the scientific community optimize and manage their knowledge and data. To learn more about BioData’s online knowledge management tool visit

Read “A Quick Guide to Organizing Computational Biology Projects”

Noble, W. (2009). A Quick Guide to Organizing Computational Biology Projects PLoS Computational Biology, 5 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000424