What Does Biotech Really Suffer From? Information Overload, or Underload?
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.” I’m suffering from a serious case of discomfort as I try to figure out which is the bigger problem facing biotech scientists: too much information, or too little.
Information overload is a serious issue in biomedical research, if not virtually all high tech fields. Simply put, there is too much to read, and too little time to read it. Recently, however, I have become aware of what may be an equally serious affliction: information underload. I thought I was possibly coining this term, but a quick Google search revealed that the phrase has been used before, notably by Bill Gates in a 1995 speech. I define information underload as a situation where an individual lacks access to timely, critical information that they need to optimally do their job. Information overload usually results from time constraints, whereas information underload arises from accessibility issues.
I uncovered this information underload predicament when I called a friend at a local biotech company to discuss a newly published paper on stem cells. His response stunned me. “No, I haven’t seen the paper,” he replied “because we don’t have a library here.” I queried “No library? How to you and your colleagues keep up with the literature, with how science is progressing, with what your competitors are doing?” The simple answer was: they generally don’t, at least on a day-to-day basis.
When I shared this story with friends and acquaintances at other small biotechs, they chimed in with a pretty similar response. No library to speak of. Subscriptions to a very restricted number of biomedical journals. Limited online access. Yes, there was a small budget to purchase journal access on an article-by-article basis. However, they were highly frustrated by this approach. They couldn’t really determine if the information in a given paper would be truly useful until they had paid for it. This is like getting to take a test drive only after you have purchased the car. So how do scientists at smaller biotech companies keep up with the scientific literature, with their peers, with their competitors? At a time when more and more papers are published, when information overload is a given, does a lack of access to the information become an equally large problem?
As research scientists know, keeping up with information in our various disciplines has become increasingly difficult. The problem is not just reading and thinking about the latest scientific papers; it’s being able to afford access to them. The cost of subscriptions to a broad spectrum of biological journals has become, in a word, expensive. Excessive, exorbitant, and prohibitive also come to mind. The overlapping nature of disciplines within the biological sciences means that someone developing a new cancer treatment will often need to keep up with the literature in specific areas of biochemistry, genetics, toxicology, computational biology, developmental biology, cell biology, immunology, stem cell biology, and, of course, oncology. This is all in addition to keeping up with general development trends in the industry as well as technical advances in experimental reagents, devices, and methodology.
The growth in the number of published scientific journals has been proceeding apace for at long as such journals have existed. Scientific societies and for-profit publishers both contribute to this expansion. In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of biological science journals. Twenty-five years ago, at the very minimum, you wanted to keep current with at least three journals: Cell, Science, and Nature. Much of what was done on the cutting edge of biology was published in the Big Three. Yes, you also wanted to keep tabs on papers published in a number of … Next Page »