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You’ve completed your research study, published your articles, made your presentations, and disseminated your research. At this point, you may be wondering whether you should retain your research records, and if the data related to your research should be destroyed.
Like many topics in the world of research, there is no one simple answer, as it can depend on your research institution, government requirements, as well as individual publisher requirements. The importance of data storage in research, however, can’t be underestimated. It’s critical that you understand the requirements and recommendations related to the retention of your research data.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of retention of research records and destruction of data, as well as examples of poor data storage and retention in research. We’ll also touch on government guidelines, and recommendations or requirements that your institution may have.
Retention of Research Data
What should you do with research materials and data once your project has been completed? There are many different guidelines and regulations regarding how long you should retain research data and records, and it comes down typically to keeping things as long as you possibly can. United States regulations, for instance, require data and research records to be stored for a minimum of three years upon completion of the research. However, some institutions require you to keep data for a longer period of time, while different disciplines may demand even longer storage terms. Ideally, you should take all of this into consideration before your research project has begun.
For example, any research that has to do with identifiable and private health information falls under HIPAA requirements, which typically require research data to be retained for a minimum of six years. Sponsors and funders may have different requirements, as well. So, knowing the requirements around your type of research, the institution, publisher, funder and federal regulations is critical as the principal investigator. A safe practice is to store data for as long as reasonably possible, until it is highly unlikely that you might be in a position to have to defend yourself or your research against any possible allegation of misconduct related to your work.
Electronic and Hard-Copy Data Storage and Protection
In the past, retaining records meant saving boxes and boxes of paperwork, authorization forms and more. Now, fortunately, electronic data storage makes the task much easier. With the benefits of using digital storage comes, of course, great responsibility. In some ways, it can be much trickier, as electronic data is much more difficult to protect. There are tools available to assure that data is stored safely, whether it is on your individual computer, in the cloud, or any other type of storage. If private information, like health information and names, as well as private contact information, happens to get hacked, stolen or lost, it can be devastating for all those involved in the research project. That situation can negatively affect your research participants, the sponsoring organizations, research institutions and project publishers that have supported your work. In addition, the loss of data will surely have a negative impact on the research project itself.
Even with electronic storage capabilities, many materials in research studies may still be hard-copies, like paper surveys, writing samples, research journals and paper notes. Whether hard-copy or electronic, all research data has to be stored in a way where access is limited to only personnel who have permission and authorization to access such materials. Paper copies should be kept in a locked file cabinet with just one key. Electronic data should only be accessed utilizing encrypted passwords that are changed often. Any identifying information, like names and addresses, should be removed, and written hard-copy data after it’s been transferred to electronic data storage should be destroyed.
Poor Data Storage and Retention in Research
The ethics and morality around data storage, retention and disposal run deep. There have been highly publicized cases of researchers being cited for misconduct around any and all of these unfortunate incidents. For example, a principal investigator not limiting access to private health information, or a researcher losing a laptop that had the only copy of unprotected and sensitive research data.
One of the most common mistakes is holding on to data for too long. Researchers and research institutions might incorrectly believe that retaining data longer than is legally required is “safer” than deleting it. But poor data storage can also mean retaining data longer than is needed. The longer data is stored, the higher the possibility of security breaches. It can also mean unnecessarily increasing the research organization’s burden to protect data security and access.
The best solution is to implement a data storage policy that addresses legal requirements in a way that is responsible, ethical, and reasonable. Again, ideally, that is done before the research has even begun, and ultimately it’s the principal investigator’s role to evaluate if extended storage is warranted, given the associated benefits and risks of keeping data related to a research project.
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