By Stewart Lyman

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: CellScience, 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 thedeclining 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.