A lost opportunity – why you should back up your data, even if it is on paper

In my twenty years at the Silwood Park campus of Imperial College, I supervised something in the order of 120 MSc research projects and at least 150 undergraduate final year projects.  Before my stint at Silwood Park I had spent ten years working for the Entomology Branch of the then UK Forest Research Division working on the population dynamics of forest pests.  My first ever PhD student, Paddy Walsh, (sadly he died a few years ago), worked on the predators associated with the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea, with a particular interest in carabid beetles (Walsh et al., 1993ab). I was thus well aware of how useful pitfall traps were as a research tool; relatively easy to deploy and maintain and very good, perhaps too good, at collecting data 😊

Too much data? Pitfall traps – and contents waiting for identification (courtesy of former PhD student Lizzie Jones)

An early star of the pitfall trapping world was Penny Greenslade, who addressed the critical issue of what pitfall trap catches were actually measuring and concluded that they were only useful in a very limited set of conditions (Greenslade, 1964ab). Coincidentally, Penny Greenslade did her PhD at Silwood Park (Greenslade, 1961) and having found her very battered thesis in the Silwood Park Library it occurred to me that a re-sampling of her sites would make an ideal BSc or MSc research project and so it proved. In 1995, Andy Salisbury, an extremely keen undergraduate entomologist, now Principal Entomologist at RHS Wisley, was the first student to repeat her 1959 survey.  Over the years a succession of students resurveyed her original sites (they were clearly identifiable from her thesis, although the vegetation associated with the sites was, in some cases different from when she conducted her trapping. By the time I left Silwood Park for pastures new in 2012, there were eight BSc project dissertations reporting the results of re-sampling Penny Greenslade’s original sites sitting on the shelves of my lab.

I still had PhD students based at Silwood Park when I left, so for two years I was retained as a Visiting Professor, which, given how much stuff I had (you have all seen what my office looks like and my office at Silwood Park was no different 😊) meant that I moved stuff gradually and piecemeal.  I moved my collection of PhD theses (44 at the time) early on, but delayed moving the almost 300 undergraduate and MSc theses as I wanted to triage them at leisure and only transfer those that I felt might be of use.

Now we come to the tragic bit, the Director of Silwood Park decided that he wanted to refurbish the building that my former office and laboratory were in, and without telling me, had my laboratory cleared and the contents skipped. To say that I was annoyed is somewhat of an understatement. Unfortunately, I had none of these theses in electronic form so the data and the story that might have been told, are lost forever 😦

That said, not all the data are lost, I have a partial record of the 2007 BSc thesis by Sarah Stow which to a certain extent, rubs salt in the wound, as it shows that there were indeed changes in the carabid community composition since 1959.

 Three of Sarah’s figures showing changes in carabid communities and abundance

Although it might have been courteous if my former Head of Department had contacted me before disposing of the the project reports, or had them moved into storage to give me a chance of retrieving them, I can in all honesty, only blame myself for their loss.  I should have been less tardy in emptying my lab, I should have clearly indicated that I still had an interest in the contents of my lab, and of course, I should have backed up my data!

Not only data I am never going to publish but data I can’t ever publish ☹

References

Greenslade, P. J. M. (1961). Studies in the ecology of Carabidae (Coleoptera). Ph.D. thesis, University of London

Greenslade, P.J.M. (1964a) Pitfall trapping as a method for studying populations of Carabidae (Col). Journal of Animal Ecology, 33, 301-310.

Greenslade, P.J.M. (1964b) The distribution, dispersal and size of a population of Nebria brevicollis (F) with comparative studies on three other Carabidae. Journal of Animal Ecology, 33, 311-333.

Walsh, P.J., Day, K.R., Leather, S.R. & Smith, A.J. (1993a) The influence of soil type and pine species on the carabid community of a plantation forest with a history of pine beauty moth infestation. Forestry, 66, 135-146.

Walsh, P.J., Leather, S.R. & Day, K.R. (1993b) The effects of aerial application of fenitrothion on the carabid community of defoliated and undefoliated lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta. Journal of Applied Entomology, 115, 134-138.

 

2 Comments

Filed under EntoNotes

2 responses to “A lost opportunity – why you should back up your data, even if it is on paper

  1. That really is a great loss, and also a blunderingly careless decision, by whoever.
    I did a pitfall survey (BSc project) at Silwood, comparing brachyptery and macroptery in carabids in different sites.🤣 The wonderful Nadia Waloff (“very interesting” in a Russian accent) suggested it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed, I was somewhat pissed off to say the least 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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