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Norbert Perrimon A grant funded the centralized public database he set up to manage his RNA interference data.
In his 1965 Nobel Prize address, physicist Richard P. Feynman revealed one of the rarely uttered secrets of scientists. “We have a habit,” he observed, “in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible to cover all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or to describe how you had the wrong idea first.”
Scientists are so acculturated to think of published literature as the ultimate archive of their life's work that they sometimes overlook the need to save the many other pieces. But science historians and archivists are often highly interested in, say, bumps in the road, which are often hidden in, or missing from, the clean and logical progression of ideas presented in the scientific literature. “Scientists have trouble understanding us,” says R. Joseph Anderson, an archivist at the American Institute of Physics. “We want all their documents that are likely to have historical value. It's a matter of keeping a complete record.”
Thus, scientists should keep materials such as early versions of manuscripts, correspondence, photos, minutes of scientific meetings, and especially correspondence and lab notebooks, which not only help scientific colleagues in their research but may also help science historians glean the thought processes that go into developing science policy.
“People think of archives as quaint,” says Clare Flemming, curator of research collections at The Explorers Club, in New York City. “What curators at scientific collections do isn't splashy, but when you think about it, material without provenance is meaningless. If someone comes along later and disagrees with your result, and no one can find the data, what happens then? The whole foundation of science is predicated on information being able to be duplicated.”
Still, “It's hard to know what's going to be helpful in the future,” says Miriam Spectre, an archivist who organized and described the Barbara McClintock Papers at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Spectre says that while most of the 1983 Nobel laureate's laboratory notebooks describing her seminal work on transposable genetic elements survived, McClintock destroyed most of her correspondence before she died. “We sure would like to have had that,” Spectre says.
Photo: Jason Grow