Some of it was on floppy disks.
A new study has found that as much as 80 percent of the raw scientific data collected by researchers in the early 1990s is gone forever, mostly because no one knows where to find it.
According to a study by Timothy H. Vines, et al. titled "The Availability of Research Data Declines Rapidly with Article Age," published last week in Current Biology, most raw data from scientific papers published twenty years ago is unobtainable - either because authors have since changed their contact information and can't be reached or because the data was stored using outdated technology, like floppy disks.
A post on Smithsonian.com's Surprising Science blog explains the researchers' methodology:
To make their estimate, [Vine's] group chose a type of data that’s been relatively consistent over time - anatomical measurements of plants and animals - and dug up between 25 and 40 papers for each odd year during the period that used this sort of data, to see if they could hunt down the raw numbers. A surprising amount of their inquiries were halted at the very first step: for 25 percent of the studies, active email addresses couldn’t be found, with defunct addresses listed on the paper itself and web searches not turning up any current ones.