Considering the personal dimensions of researchers’ data lifecycles

Considering the Personal Dimensions of Researchers’ Data Lifecycles

Gretchen Stahlman

Archivists often grapple with notions of time and affect as profound forces influencing collective memory and the preservation of information and artifacts. But how do these forces operate together in specialized knowledge contexts, such as the data produced by scientists conducting research over the courses of their careers? Scientific data represent what Geoffrey Bowker (2005) refers to as “traces of the past”—snapshots in time that can either have greater impact through visibility or fail to be remembered at all, depending on the manner of recording and perpetuation. Policies and infrastructures for archiving data are often informed by data lifecycle models that depict various stages traversed by project data, typically as a cyclical process from inception and creation to preservation and reuse of data following completion of the project. Data lifecycle models and the narratives around them tend to be impersonal, as noted by Cox & Tam (2018). In other words, they do not incorporate researchers’ affective experiences and career-life trajectories as potential influences on the lifecycles of data as information resources.

—Archivists often grapple with notions of time and affect as profound forces influencing collective memory and the preservation of information and artifacts.—

To explore these personal dynamics in relation to data lifecycles, I analyzed a small series of interviews with astronomers about their data and research practices to better understand the affective influences on researchers’ data sharing behavior over time. Six preliminary affective dimensions that may interface with data lifecycles emerged and were interpreted considering the career stages of the interviewees. This exploration led to a researcher-centric lifecycle depiction inspired by Jenna Hartel’s (2010) information behavior research on the career arcs of hobby chefs engaging in information activities over time. The temporal framework situates project data lifecycle activities unfolding alongside the progressing career arcs of scientists, where interconnected affective influences can motivate data preservation episodes at any career stage.

Image Credit: DOE/FNAL/DECam/R. Hahn/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the six affective dimensions identified through the study is loose ends. For researchers at all career stages, the act of making data share-able and preserving data in trusted locations may be added to a to-do list and never completed, potentially persisting as an ongoing cognitive burden for the individuals. Amidst rapid technological changes, a later-career researcher may glance every day at cardboard boxes in an office corner filled with digital data on obsolete tapes or floppy disks, or even decrepit devices that contain once-valuable information but no longer interoperate with modern systems. Meanwhile, these loose ends grow more difficult to resolve as time passes and storage media and software age.

Another affective dimension expressed by interviewees is nostalgia, commonly defined as a wistful emotion or state of longing for the past. Fred Davis’s (1979) Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia is a timeless reflection on individual and collective nostalgic experiences and their significance. For Davis, nostalgia works on personal and societal levels to weave together past and present in a meaningful way, where the human biological lifecycle produces and utilizes nostalgic feelings for “the purpose of continuity of identity by reassuring the now self that it is ‘as it was then’” (p. 37), as a mechanism for coping with uncertainties about the future, and for reconciling the passage of time.

While advancing through the human life cycle, one may begin to idealize past events and older paradigms, and to recall pivotal personal and professional experiences with lucidity. However, Davis (1979) laments that “unlike the nostalgia of the young, that of the old is a nostalgia without end” (p. 67), where nostalgic reverie provoked by mortality increasingly separates those in the later parts of their lives from younger individuals in more dominant social roles. It may be at this point especially that nostalgia can compel an individual or cohort to revisit the artifacts of the past and desire to make additional contributions to society by archiving tangible products of a life’s work, such as research data.

By addressing personal motivations for sharing and archiving data such as the need to tie up loose ends and feelings of nostalgia for past research and earlier career and life experiences, information scholars and practitioners can shed further light upon profound aspects of human life as information experiences. This study suggests that the role of affect in data curation and lifecycle modeling should be further explored and discussed, and that data management-related needs of scientists can change as human lifecycles progress, requiring adaptive models and services that support all career stages. The full article upon which this essay is based can be found here:

Stahlman, G. R. (2022). From nostalgia to knowledge: Considering the personal dimensions of data lifecycles. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.


Bowker, G. C. (2005). Memory practices in the sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cox, A. M., & Tam, W. W. T. (2018). A critical analysis of lifecycle models of the research process and research data management. Aslib Journal of Information Management.

Davis, F. (1979). Yearning for yesterday: A sociology of nostalgia. New York: The Free Press.

Hartel, J. (2010). Time as a framework for information science: Insights from the hobby of gourmet cooking. Information Research, 15(4), 15-4.

Cite this article in APA as: Stahlman, G. (2022, August 11). Considering the personal dimensions of researchers’ data lifecycles. Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 8.

Gretchen Stahlman

Gretchen Stahlman is an Assistant Professor of Library & Information Science at Rutgers University. Gretchen’s current research interests include: scientific data management and lifecycles; scholarly and science communication; and the social, technical, and institutional infrastructures that mediate collective knowledge across disciplines. In a previous life, Gretchen worked as a documentation specialist for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope construction project.