Stewart Lyman’s piece in Xconomy ponders the conundrum of biotech suffering from too much and too little information. He points to the problem of lack of library access for many small biotechs and the prohibitive expense of creating an in house library, even in the most focused areas. Overload is also a serious problem where investigators can drown in the detail of it all, with little time to devote to it. An even more concerning picture emerges if one considers that most advanced life science development in areas like regenerative medicine, for example, require a cross-disciplinary handle on it all. Innovative product development requires special insight and often hinges on being able to piece things together, and a few “aha” moments. How can this happen if one is unaware of what is out there?
As Lyman points out, some contend that the vast majority of what is published is ‘crap’ and does not matter. Even if true, there is still a lot dumpster diving to be done. Still others suggest that too much information confuses, that focus is key, yet innovation will more likely come from a “tidbit” of information just outside your sphere of expertise, so related work should not be ignored. What can be done, today, to improve on things without spending more money or expending all your staff’s time only to confuse things?
Personally, I love uncovering actionable knowledge and over the years we have looked into the details of several areas for our own investigations as well as for clients. Here are a few techniques (a mix of information retrieval and Swanson text mining) that have helped me make sense of things quickly. Hope they help you too.
Get into it with a knowledge retreat – just you and PubMed. Invest some time to immerse yourself. It will pay back much quicker and with less overall effort than a more casual or fragmented encounter.
If you’re expanding your horizons beyond your expertise, read a couple of recent reviews, preferably by different investigative groups, scientific versus clinical if applicable to get a sense of the history and current opinion. If a factoid catches your interest, it’s a place to look at the cited reference and dig deeper with a search.
Think about what you’d most like to know. You know you don’t need to know everything.
Search using at least two terms that you are trying to understand the connection of, scan the list of articles, read abstracts, note them for later if you find something and move on. Save your searches so you can go back if you start connecting some dots later on and find a need to revisit the list. You’ll be surprised how quickly you uncover major issues, but it is best done being in the moment, so immersion is key.
Let what you find lead you to what to look at next. Bring your experience and insight into it but leave your assumptions out of it.
Connect the dots. Say you find several papers on X-kinase popping up. Ask questions like “Why the interest in X-kinase for this cancer? What else is known about X-kinase? What else is known about the cancer?” You’ll be surprised to find that many connections are actually quite sketchy by probing even just the abstracts. On the flip side, you might find a connection others have missed by doing this, AHA! And do you need to know every niggling detail about X-kinase? No, just the things that are important to you.
Look to the “leading” journals but don’t assume that everything in these journals on the broad topic is significant to you and requires reading. One person’s “important” work is meaningless to another. Stick to what is likely to impact what you care about.
Use published conclusions to add to your feel for where the field is headed and primarily use them to spark ideas for your next search. You’ll make your own conclusions.
Even in a solid day’s time you’ll be feeling pretty informed, with a short list of key papers to get either at the library with a day pass or through the online services, although I have to admit, paying $30-50 for a paper means I’ll probably do without it. Now that your list is manageable, you might try tapping into your academic advisors for help as well.
Keep at it until the dots you want to connect for your objectives are connected.
Once you have done this, you’ll find you can read the latest research news and scan the latest papers more quickly and confidently. An oh, after years doing this, I’ve never come away without learning something p r e t t y i n t e r e s t i n g and feeling that it was time well spent.