What Does Biotech Really Suffer From? Information Overload, or Underload?

1/18/11

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 other journals, such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The Journal of Biological Chemistry, Cancer Research, The Journal of Experimental Medicine, Genes and Development, Genetics, FASEB Journal, and about 50 others. Keyword searches would help you focus on those topics specifically of interest to you.

These days, the Big Three journals have grown and divided like the bacteria that they often report on. Science, still a stand-alone journal, has spun off Science Signaling and Science Translational Medicine. Nature publishes not just its primary journal but also Nature Biotechnology, Nature Cell Biology, Nature Chemical Biology, Nature Genetics, Nature Immunology, Nature Medicine, Nature Neuroscience, and a whole host of Nature Review journals. Cell has morphed into Molecular Cell, Cell Cancer Cell, Developmental Cell, and Cell Metabolism, all in addition to the flagship Cell.

The rising cost of journal subscriptions has led to the growth of open source, free online journals such as those published by the nonprofit Public Library of Science (PLoS). While the trend is admirable, especially for those on a tight budget, the number of free journals is still dwarfed by those that you need to pay to access. And while I haven’t done a formal survey, it is clear that most of the papers that I try to access online are not freely available.

In the past, an inelegant solution to the journal access problem was to simply pay a visit to a local university or research institution’s biomedical library that subscribed to the journal(s) of interest. You could read them for free and photocopy those articles that you wanted for a minimal fee. Not nearly as convenient as having a decent library down the hall, but at least you could access the information. These days, a variant of this workaround is still a viable option. While most institutions no longer get a substantial number of physical copies of their journals (a result of space constraints and high storage costs), they can provide computer access to their extensive journal subscriptions for guests to their libraries. The primary problem for visitors is overcoming personal inertia to get to the library, and once there, you have to hope there is an available computer to use. This all assumes, of course, that you work in close physical proximity to a well-equipped medical library.

Reading (or even scanning) multiple journals certainly isn’t a formal job requirement, and many scientists don’t do it as a rule. Many years ago a graduate school advisor opined that 95 percent of the scientific literature was “crap” and could be safely ignored. Experience has shown me, however, that being widely read has significant advantages. It enhances collaboration. It facilitates your ability to make connections, to see relationships, to partake of a bigger picture. This, in turn, can lead to insights, to breakthroughs, to innovation. Others would argue the opposite view, that all of the “extraneous” reading simply dilutes one’s focus from the primary goal at hand. Whichever viewpoint one adopts, my concern these days is that many scientists, especially those who work for small biotechs, have no real choice. They simply can’t afford access to a wide range of journals. This won’t necessarily impede their day-to-day work, but I worry that they will miss out on some critical articles containing highly important data. This informational void could eventually manifest itself as a manufacturing issue, side effect, analytic problem, efficacy issue, or in any number of ways. Over time, that may spell doom for the drugs that they are working to develop, or at least slow down their progress.

Big library budgets, of course, do not directly translate into research productivity, as evidenced by the declining number of novel drugs developed by Big Pharma in recent years. Other factors are likely responsible for this productivity decline. However, recent industry trends have seen Big Pharma turn to smaller biotech companies at an increasingly rapid pace to fill their diminished pipelines. Morgan Stanley even suggested last year that Big Pharma should abandon their own internal research programs and simply fill their pipelines by purchasing drugs being developed by these smaller biotech companies. In essence, the burden of biological drug discovery is being pushed down from large companies with enormous research budgets to small startups with just a few coins to rub together. These fledgling company scientists are expected to come up with new, cutting edge innovative discoveries. Compared to Big Pharma, their track record in recent years is actually pretty competitive, especially on a cost basis. My concern, however, is that this lack of access to the scientific literature across the entire biotech industry will handicap their efforts to varying degrees. This may have contributed, in part, to the numerous clinical failures of drugs purchased by Big Pharma from these small companies in recent years.

Innovative startup companies in many fields will always be financially constrained compared to their well-established brethren with whom they hope to compete. However, not all of these disciplines (e.g. software) are as dependent on library access as are biotech companies. I’m not sure what can be done to give biotech scientists greater access to a wider range of journals. Perhaps some type of co-op or consortiums could be set up to facilitate such access among groups of companies? I also have serious doubts that the potentially damaging effects of information underload can be easily measured. However, not being able to readily quantitate a problem doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The information underload issue is certainly worth pondering, given that the overall number of new drugs approved by the FDA in 2010 was the lowest in several years, and the overall success rate in clinical trials is measured in the single digits for a wide variety of diseases.

Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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  • Eric Thompson

    Having established and run an evidence department for a molecular pathology company I am well aquatinted with the cost of establishing access to the literature. The level of effort in simply establishing which publishers you need to work with and finding contacts within those corporations is high. There is no such thing as one stop shopping short of a document delivery service. Those services are useful, but expensive. They are the shortest route to access for scientists that don’t want to take the time to be librarians too.

    One place I have seen some degree of relief is with the local bioindustry association, which has negotiated a discount with a few journals. I looked into a program through the state university medical school which has a program for community healthcare providers, but the journals were not supportive of molecular pathology. States with high levels of biotech might find a good investment in similar programs for biotech startups. It may also be a good use of resources for BIO, as this sounds like a common problem. Of course, the question of who pays and how much they pay is still an open problem in this scenario. If BIO could bring an economy of scale to the negotiations then perhaps a GroupOn type of scenario could play out with the publishers.

  • Doug Badders

    PLoS published an article by Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis titled: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

    http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

    As you mentioned, PLoS offers free access and this is a must read. Not having access is a big problem but so is the amount of BS that is found in the articles.

  • Kim Emmons

    Table of contents services (such as Ingenta Connect) are often a less expensive way to go for companies that can’t afford a library or a librarian. Individuals can subscribe to get the abstracts of journals that are important to their field, and only order those articles that are most relevant. Although the price per article varies according to the journal and may seem steep at times, consider that Biotech company library budgets typically exceed a million dollars for the journals, databases and staff.

  • http://www.stemc.net Anton H Romulus

    Thomson Reuters should be a good start — astonishing they have a title close (or may be an answer) to the subject discussed in this article
    US No Longer “Colossus of Science”
    http://thomsonreuters.com/products_services/science/

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markedwardminie Mark Minie

    Thanks Stewart for posting this-staying currant with the scientific lit is the lifeblood of research and yet appears to be underappreciated and misunderstood within the biotech/pharma industry as a whole. The value of such access and the time and tools needed to make the most efficient use of it are also often not always clear to non-research staff. PubMed, which is freely available online, provides abstracts for articles from the vast majority of peer reviewed biomedical journals-however, abstracts are rarely informative enough to be of value and the need is for access for the full text with data and methods-and rapid access at that. PubMed Central makes most if not all of the full material freely available to everyone, but on a delayed basis-seeing an important paper 6 months following publication is just too slow. Additionally, going through an indexed list and ordering copies of papers one at a time is very inefficient and destroys the flow of thought in the process…being able to move through the full text and images and data of papers in real-time online is absolutely necessary to researching the literature and getting the deep level understanding needed-exploration is the paradigm here. The most current and up-to-date material is also published first on the Web in special restricted online sections of the top journals. Add to all this the fact that increasingly publication means making the raw data from experiments available online (everything from gene sequence and expression data to fMRI scans and more…) and it becomes clear that there is critical need for online tools for analyzing and making sense of such information—even data mining tools for research articles would be necessary to do all this with maximum utility (smart device Apps come to mind…). Publication now also includes “new media” such as video (see Journal of Visualized Experiments at http://www.jove.com/ for an example). All this points to a real need to open up university level access to the community in some way—finding a sustainable (meaning paid for…) way to make the full online resources of say the University of Washington’s Health Science Library accessible to the Washington state biotech/pharma industry would make a huge positive contribution to the support of such science based industries. The University of Washington, through such programs as the Professional and Continuing Education/Bioengineering Basic Bioscience offerings meet part of this need—students in these classes are continually exposed to a graduate level “journal club” awareness program and as University of Washington students have full access to restricted online biomedical journals. Every quarter at least one game changing basic bioscience finding comes-up that participants in these classes would not have been aware of without the access to full text literature afforded them via this program (in the stem cell arena, direct cell conversion was the new thing last quarter…).

    Finding a way to make such online access easily available to the community as a whole, plus providing a means of sharing and communicating and discussing such information on a real-time basis (perhaps via the use of new social networking tools online-a sort of Facebook for bioscience with Apps) would address this need and definitely would help deal with the information underload issues…and improve the competitiveness and innovation levels of the state’s bioscience research driven industries.

    We have too much data and not enough comprehension, and it is this lack of understanding of the basic biology that is limiting our making good, effective and profitable use of the treasure trove of data provided by whole genome sequence and expression data (and other types of biodata-more is going on than just “gene stuff”) now available—development of community access to the scientific literature, tools to analyze such information and the application of new means of networking to make sense of such new biology is imperative.

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Thanks for all of your comments on this important problem. Numerous conversations I have had over the past few days have convinced me that the problem is more widespread than I had originally thought, and that it is affecting smaller academic institutions as well. Coming up with a solution to this lack of access to scientific journals is really problematic. It would be great if BIO could help with this; at the very least, they might have the buying power to get larger discounts for member companies. Of course, it is not clear to me that companies that can’t afford journal access will spend the money to become members of BIO. Eric, I don’t know where you are located, but can you recommend a specific bioindustry association that offers journal discounts to member companies? Doug, I have read the Ioannidis article on PLoS and it was quite interesting. However, the fact that he found some serious problems with the studies he examined doesn’t negate the fact that scientist’s need access to the research literature, as you rightly point out. Kim is right that abstract and Table of Content services are helpful, but these are simply not sufficient to fully inform readers since the devil is in the Figures, and sometimes in the Material and Methods section. Still, it is better than nothing. Anton, I read the Thomson Reuters article which was interesting, but the article was discussing general US competitiveness and not the specifics of journal access. Mark did a nice job of expanding my argument and illustrating why journal access is so important. Thanks for pointing out PubMed Central, which indeed is a very useful resource. Unfortunately, it does not cover many of the journals I looked for, and it won’t provide access to the Big Three and their spin-off journals: they have no gateway to Science, Nature, or Cell journals. It would be great if the UW Health Science library could be made available to scientists at biotech companies, but it is difficult to envision this happening because (1) the journals likely have restrictions on who can view their materials as part of a site license, and (2) funding cutbacks at the UW would probably make it unlikely that they will take this on anytime soon even if they want to. If anyone over at the UW (or anywhere else, for that matter) can suggest a solution (partial or full) to this problem I am all ears. I’m having a hard time picturing how a bioscience Facebook with Apps would function (I’m not a social networking kind of guy), but I will leave this for someone else to set up and then see how it works. I wish in writing this piece I had more suggestions for real solutions to the problem. Someone suggested a Website called the Tree of Medicine might be helpful, so readers may want to take a look at it. My quick take is that it is of limited usefulness because it only covers a few specific areas of biomedicine, depends on someone else’s judgment of the utility of a paper, and really does not allow the serendipity that can arise from simply picking up and perusing a journal. I also don’t know what the cost is that is associated with this service. In summary, even after my discussions with those who were simpatico with my viewpoint in the past few days, I have no new suggestions to offer. I am hopeful that shining a light on the problem is the first step towards trying to solve it, which is why I wrote the article in the first place.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markedwardminie Mark Minie

    Stuart,

    Two points-

    1) Articles from Cell, Science and Nature are routinely made available for free on PubMed Central, so I do not understand your “it won’t provide access to the Big Three” comment at all–the problem is only that there is a 6 month delay before they are placed in PubMed Central. Otherwise, everything is available eventually…

    For a good look at NIH policy on this, see-

    http://publicaccess.nih.gov/

    Note also that authors have the option of immediately posting their original manuscripts on PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication and any journal, such as Cell, Science and Nature. As I understand it, the UW Library encourages and tries to help UW faculty do this…w/o much success unfortunately.

    2) There is a financially viable means of granting access to the UW HSL to members of the community via the for fee Professional and Continuing Education (UW PCE) program–students in these programs are granted UW NetIDs that allow them full online access via proxy server to the scientific holdings at the UW Library system, HSL included. All of my students in this program routinely use this feature in my class and report that it is one of the most important aspects of their involvement in these classes. Surely there is a way to put together a program that is supported by local companies and organizations to subsidized continuing-ed type journal club classes online that will pay for the library access, meet the requirements of the publishers and address the issue in your post-which is, really, a continuing science education issue. Note also that in addition to providing a much needed income stream to the UW, the cost to the community of paying for or subsidizing members as students in these sorts of courses would be minimal compared to the cost of setting up access within each individual organization.

    By providing access via this mechanism, UW would more than pay for the journals and also would provide a very concrete, direct and easily identifiable support of the local biotech/pharma industry–one of the stated functions of the university and a justification of state support of the UW as an economic driver.

    Such a program could be implemented rapidly, as the infrastructure already exists…all that would be needed would be to establish the fee structure, the specific courses and guiding policies…

    There should be an effort to at least actively discuss this approach with the UW, in particular with the UW PCE and the bioscience departments that offer courses through PCE, such as the Bioengineering Department…we should set up a meeting on this…

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Mark, I must admit I am not an expert on PubMed Central, but I cannot find a way to access all of the older articles published by Cell, Science, and Nature. These journals are not listed under the Journal Names Tabs, and I can only find some articles available under the Special Collections Tab. Making select articles available is not the same as providing full access to older journals. If I’m still not getting this, I will ask you for help with a tutorial.

    I like your proposed idea of establishing a continuing education program for online journal access along the lines you suggest. I would certainly think that local companies and even some of the academic institutions to which I referred would welcome and financially support this approach as long as it would cost not much more than they are paying now for journal subscriptions. Whether the journals would go for this structure is something I can’t readily gauge. I’m not sure that they would buy into the concept of scientists and techs as “student” in an online journal club/continuing education class. I would be happy to work with you, the UW, and local companies to bring this to fruition. As you suggest, the first place to start would be the UW, since without their support and input I don’t see this happening (and, of course, it is their library we would like to access). Can you reach out to the appropriate UW folks to make this happen?

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markedwardminie Mark Minie

    Stuart,

    1) Now I see what you are getting at–I believe Pubmed Central only goes back to 2007 or so, but there may be plans to push earlier content into it in the future. On the other hand, the issue was current literature…most people would consider anything more than 2 or three years old ancient history and of little interest…for the rare situation where a paper from the “Big Three” is of interest, a trip to UW documents services might suffice…online of course…

    2) I have just today broached this topic with associates at PCE–turns out they are looking into a 1 credit course along these lines already and there may be some interest…stay tuned…