Replicability and archiving of geological samples

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In Nature this week, Noah Planavsky and coworkers, including the present director of the National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson, have an opinion piece calling for mandatory archiving of geological samples that underlie published research: “Store and share ancient rocks”.

This call is analogous to the work maintaining sequence databases in genetics, or curation of paleontological samples. Planavsky and his coauthors convey the need for seriousness concerning reliability and replicability of biochemical and other examinations of rock and mineral samples.

Attempts over the past decade to answer questions using better tools and larger databases have only amplified disputes. To make matters worse, too often, rock samples are not archived or shared. It is common for samples to be held by researchers in private collections instead of in accessible, curated institutional archives or museums. That’s a problem, because different geoscience teams cannot check each other’s work to test whether published results are robust and can be replicated.

We are fast entering a world where it may be more costly in time and effort to carry out field collection of samples for replication. That means that field studies need to make more effort to record all the context necessary for interpreting the samples they collect. Many scientists have relied upon their own memory, their descriptive ability, and GPS coordinates to document samples. The field should prioritize more precise and replicable methods for collecting context with samples.

Funding agencies should require that researchers’ grant proposals include sample archival procedures and that budgets include curation fees. Critics might argue that archiving will decrease the money available for other scientific endeavours. In our view, a sample stewardship plan should be viewed as equivalent to budget-line items for data archiving, publishing fees or institutional overhead costs that support other essential components of the research workflow.

Over the past decade, funding for biological collections has declined. That has hit many museums and curating institutions hard. The role of institutions who curate and preserve samples is more and more important. We are going to rely on skilled people who know collections, and who can work with outside experts to do apply new methods to these samples. For the future of research, we need to be building these capacities now.