Retention and disposal

You should identify the likely retention period for your data as early as possible in the research project and ensure that requirements for retention and disposal (including secure destruction) are met.

You should also ensure that actions and decisions taken during the project facilitate long-term or permanent retention for data with enduring value to the research community or of wider public interest.

Minimum retention periods

Your research data needs to be kept for as long as required to:

  • meet any statutory or regulatory obligations (records legislation, funding agency guidelines, contractual arrangements with research partners)
  • meet the current needs of researchers
  • meet the future needs of researchers where these can reasonably be anticipated; and
  • satisfy expectations of the University in documenting research activity.

The minimum period for keeping research data at the University of Sydney is 5 years from the completion of the project or the time that the results of the research are published (whichever is later).

In some cases, a much longer minimum retention period (up to 25 years) is required, depending on the type of research data that is being collected.

Long term and permanent retention

Often research data should be retained in the long term, as it may have lasting research value for the research community and broader audiences. In these cases, the decision may be made to keep data for a longer period or on a permanent basis.

Longer-term and permanent retention of data is recommended where the outcomes of the research:

  • is controversial or of high public interest
  • would be costly or impossible to reproduce
  • relates to the use of or supports the development of an innovative technique
  • supports a patent application or other services
  • has long-term heritage, historical or cultural value
  • is of significant value to other researchers

Any research data that supports research of this kind, and that would be needed to validate results, should also be considered for longer-term or permanent retention.

Planning for long term or permanent retention

If you think that your data may be a candidate for long-term or permanent retention, you should be aware that decisions made at an early stage of the research project can limit your later ability to retain data in a usable form. For example:

  • Human ethics requirements and the nature of the consents you seek from participants will determine whether data can be re-used for future projects and in what ways. (See information about ethical requirements)
  • Technology-based decisions relating to storage media, software, and digital file formats might impact upon the length of time that data can be easily retrieved and used. (See information about durable formats and where to store data.)
  • If good documentation about the data has not been kept throughout the life of the data, it may be difficult to find the data and make sense of it at a later date, particularly if those originally responsible for the data are no longer at the University of Sydney. (See information about - metadata and documentation)

Identifying issues like these around long-term and permanent retention is part of data management planning.

Research data that is going to be retained permanently should be deposited in a repository or archive. Please see information about sharing and archiving data.

Secure destruction

Destruction of data may be required on ethical grounds or because it has been determined that the data is no longer of value. Ensuring destruction of research data is carried out appropriately is an important part of research data management.

Destruction must be carried out using an irreversible method that renders the data unreadable.

The same level of security should be applied to the destruction process as to managing the data. Extra care must be taken when dealing with records that contain sensitive information. Researchers should document what data will be destroyed and the destruction processes used.

Non-digital data

Non-digital data may be destroyed by:

  • shredding
  • pulping
  • burning
  • chemical recycling (for microform or x-ray)
  • dissolving in acid (for video or audio tapes)

Digital data

Deleting digital data does not mean it is destroyed: professional assistance and specialised software may be required to ensure that the data is permanently inaccessible or that the storage media that held the record is physically destroyed. All existing copies of digital data should be destroyed, including system backups.

Digital data may be destroyed by:

  • digital file shredding
  • erasure via degaussing
  • physical destruction of storage media
  • reformatting (only if the process is guaranteed non-reversible)