Durable formats

How to choose a good digital file format; the risks of hardware and software obsolescence; finding local protocols for managing non-digital data in print and physical formats.

Digital file format considerations

For digital research data, you should adopt file formats that meet criteria such as:

  • endorsed and published by standards agencies such as Standards Australia and ISO

  • publicly documented, i.e. complete authoritative specifications are available

  • the product of collaborative development and consultative processes

  • self-documenting, i.e. the digital file itself can include useful metadata

  • widely used and accepted as best practice within the researcher's discipline or another user community.

Format independence from specific platforms, hardware or software

You should also consider the long-term availability of and support for any hardware and software used to create and manipulate research data. Considerations include:

  • the likely time that the hardware and software will be available

  • the size and level of activity of the developer and user communities

  • the level of technical support that is available now and in the future.

Where there is a reliance on specific software, you should consider storing the programs and any related documentation with the research data, if the terms and conditions under which you bought or licensed the software permit you to do this. You should document any special hardware and software requirements as part of data planning.

Managing non-digital data in print and physical formats

Non-digital formats refer to the physical medium in which research data is recorded or carried, and includes but is not limited to, paper (including files, cards, volumes, notebooks, maps and plans), photographs (including colour and black and white prints), film (including motion picture, microforms, still photographic negatives and transparencies), magnetic media (including computer disks and tapes, video and audio tapes), optical media (including DVD's and compact/ mini discs) and artworks on paper. These formats are at risk of data loss and degradation.

Optical media are vulnerable to poor or over-handling, environmental changes such as temperature, relative humidity, air quality and lighting conditions (particularly exposure to UV radiation). Magnetic media, like hard drives, are equally sensitive to their physical environment, needing to be kept away from magnetic fields.

Printed materials and photographs degrade over time from exposure to sunlight, moisture, pests and acid. High quality media should be used for preparing paper-based materials for storage, or for copies of originals. Such precautions include using acid-free paper, folders and boxes and non-rust paperclips rather than staples.

Where practical, digitisation and "format shifting" (where you are the copyright owner) to durable digital formats can offer a sustainable solution. Examples include using scanning technologies to create digital files from hard-copy print materials and converting optical media to bit streams. Considerations for undertaking conversion to other formats include the data's significant ongoing value, minimum retention period, access to conversion technologies, conversion costs and available funding, and access requirements. For cases where the original non-digital format must be preserved and/or conversion is not possible, appropriate packaging and storage are essential.

Contact your faculty or email researchdata@monash.edu for advice on local protocols for managing non-digital data.