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Responsibilities for Scientific Information in Biology: Proposal for Financing a Comprehensive System

MILTON O.LEE

This paper will deal with responsibilities for information storage-retrieval and with mechanisms for discharge of these responsibilities in the field of biological science only. It is perhaps applicable to other fields of natural science as well, but the author is not as acutely aware of the particular situations and problems in other fields, or of the mechanisms now serving them. Also, the circumstances in biology are perhaps more desperate than in the other large areas of science.

Biology is the most extensive field of natural science. Its core of basic disciplines, each rather poorly delimited, is large, ranging from the numerous divisions of plant science, animal science, microbiology, and bacteriology to human biology. It embraces the sciences of genetics, evolution, morphology, taxonomy, biochemistry, biophysics, physiology, and ecology. From another point of view it ranges from the molecular level through the tissue, organ, regulatory, and organism levels to the ecological, behavioral, and social levels.

In addition, the applications of biological science overbalance the basic core sciences. These applications are chiefly, but not exclusively, in the technologies of agriculture, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, and public health. These applications in the technologies have become so necessary and vital in our civilization that they have overshadowed the basic life sciences upon which they depend. In the number of professional people employed, in the amount of research work undertaken, and in the financial support for such research, the applied fields of biology far surpass the basic biological sciences themselves.

With such a great diversity of both applications and basic disciplines, the communication of new information, its storage, and retrospective search and

MILTON O.LEE The American Physiological Society, Washington, D.C.



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--> Responsibilities for Scientific Information in Biology: Proposal for Financing a Comprehensive System MILTON O.LEE This paper will deal with responsibilities for information storage-retrieval and with mechanisms for discharge of these responsibilities in the field of biological science only. It is perhaps applicable to other fields of natural science as well, but the author is not as acutely aware of the particular situations and problems in other fields, or of the mechanisms now serving them. Also, the circumstances in biology are perhaps more desperate than in the other large areas of science. Biology is the most extensive field of natural science. Its core of basic disciplines, each rather poorly delimited, is large, ranging from the numerous divisions of plant science, animal science, microbiology, and bacteriology to human biology. It embraces the sciences of genetics, evolution, morphology, taxonomy, biochemistry, biophysics, physiology, and ecology. From another point of view it ranges from the molecular level through the tissue, organ, regulatory, and organism levels to the ecological, behavioral, and social levels. In addition, the applications of biological science overbalance the basic core sciences. These applications are chiefly, but not exclusively, in the technologies of agriculture, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, and public health. These applications in the technologies have become so necessary and vital in our civilization that they have overshadowed the basic life sciences upon which they depend. In the number of professional people employed, in the amount of research work undertaken, and in the financial support for such research, the applied fields of biology far surpass the basic biological sciences themselves. With such a great diversity of both applications and basic disciplines, the communication of new information, its storage, and retrospective search and MILTON O.LEE The American Physiological Society, Washington, D.C.

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--> retrieval have posed enormous problems, probably much greater than in any other of the natural sciences. The mechanisms presently in operation are inadequate in varying degree, both with regard to the particular service each attempts to render and in the coordination and interrelations of each service with the others. Responsibilities for handling various aspects of information and communication problems have been assumed by necessity-conscious groups, and organizations have been set up largely on an ad hoc basis and without much consideration of overall relations or total adequacy. It may be useful at this time to attempt to delimit the responsibilities that are now tacitly assumed by or that might logically be assigned to the several elements that are concerned with biological information. For the purposes of this paper, these elements are considered to be: The research funds and the agencies, public and private, that provide financial support for the production and utilization of new information. The scientist-scholars who produce the information. The media (mostly journals) that disseminate the new information initially. Information services and centers: general abstracting and indexing media for classification and storage-retrieval, similar services in specialized areas, data processing centers, and compilations such as reviews, bibliographies, handbooks, and compendia. The analysis and the proposal that are made are with reference to the United States only. However, many of the delineations of responsibility are probably applicable generally, and the mechanism suggested for meeting responsibility may be applicable to the situation in other countries. The responsibilities of research funds and agencies supporting research More than 60 percent of the funds that support biological research in the United States at present come from research-project grants. These grants are for budgeted expenditures for specific projects, planned by the researcher or research team and approved by the fund-granting agency. The pattern of the support is so well known that it is only necessary to summarize. The budgets for such planned projects may include salaries of investigators, technical and clerical help, necessary instruments and apparatus, supplies, necessary travel, occasionally the construction of facilities, and an institutional overhead charge. Seldom is there any specific provision in budgets for the publication of the

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--> results of the investigations and probably never for any services of storage-retrieval. Yet the funds expended for the researches are almost entirely wasted unless the results are communicated and, even if published, will after a period of years certainly have been wasted to the extent that retrieval by future workers becomes extremely difficult or impossible in a practical sense. Should we not clearly recognize and accept the full responsibility of research funds and research budgets to provide financial support not only for primary communication as an essential part of investigation but also for the full job of permanent storage-retrieval? The cost of meeting adequately the total responsibility would be small in proportion to our total research expenditure—of the order of less than 5 percent. Some small but encouraging beginnings in the acceptance of such responsibility have been made, notably in the field of physics in the United States, for the support of primary publication. Extension to and acceptance by supporting funds of the direct responsibility for storage-retrieval is the final and seemingly inevitable step. Responsibilities of the scientist, researcher, and technologist The production of new biological information has been traditionally the privilege and responsibility of the scientists, researchers, and technologists who have chosen biological science or applied biology for their professional careers. Biologists are located mostly in our universities and colleges where they also produce the new generation of their kind, in institutes and foundations devoted to biological research, in various local, state, and federal government institutions, and, to some extent, in industry, agricultural experiment stations, hospitals, clinical centers, and health centers. Biologists have always been aware of their responsibility, but their awareness has been sharpened and intensified by the increasing practice over the last twenty-five years of dependence upon specific project-research grants for support of their studies. This method of support has become a standard pattern and carries some implications that are deplored by some but which nevertheless are real and weighty. Since new information is the only product resulting from the expenditure of these vast research funds, researchers feel it is necessary to communicate periodically their research results, whether or not they are fragmentary and incomplete in giving answers to the large questions posed by the projects. Reporting, i.e., publication, is indeed often necessary to secure continuation of support. Such reporting of fragments may serve to accelerate the overall progress of biological science over a period of time, but its increasing practice poses acute problems for the journals of primary publication and particularly for the exist-

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--> ing systems for storage, search, and retrieval of the information. Traditionally, the responsibility of the researcher ended when he secured acceptance for publication of his research results in an appropriate journal. If he became an authority in his area, his privilege and responsibility extended to the authorship of occasional scholarly reviews, chapters in textbooks and handbooks and in secondary compendia of other sorts. Have we not arrived at the time when our concept of the responsibility of the author of new information must be broadened? Should he be responsible not only for the publication, but also for its tagging, labeling, identification in one way or another to keep it permanently available in what might be called our “scientific consciousness?” Should not the author take as much of the responsibility for the intellectual part of the whole job of communication as it is practicable for him to do? His intellectual contribution is the sine qua non for the production of new scientific knowledge. It is certainly to his advantage to ensure that retrieval of his contribution of information will be possible for other workers without extreme difficulty for at least another generation. There is reason to believe that he will accept willingly the extension of his intellectual effort to the production of a suitable abstract of his communication, indicia for indexing and classification, and even to supply upon request specific information for data-processing systems. It should not be forgotten that the cost of the intellectual effort, if done at second hand, is generally the most expensive part of any system for information storage-retrieval. Part of it at least can be done more efficiently by authors than by others. Responsibilities of journals (of primary publication) As new biological information is discovered, it is communicated and disseminated chiefly through societies and the journals which they sponsor and control editorially. Indeed, communication in one form or another seems to be the main or sole function of most biological societies. The job of communication itself is done much less than perfectly on the whole and poorly in many cases. Biology has lacked the cohesiveness that has characterized chemistry and physics, and has splintered into a large number of small societies narrow in their specialized fields of interest. New ones are continually being formed. Their journals of primary publication serve rather narrow areas of interest and have small subscription lists. Circulations of more than 5000 are unusual; circulations of 500 to 1000 are common. While membership in a society usually includes a subscription to the society’s journal, the individual biologist usually receives only a very few journals (perhaps 2 to 6) and depends largely upon library services for access to published communications.

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--> Fifty to sixty years ago, when some of our present biological societies were being formed, the need for secondary media of communication barely existed. While there were occasional grumblings over the difficulty of getting access to papers in obscure small-circulation journals and concern over the increasing amount of material, by and large the individual biologist could read all the literature that was currently produced in his particular area of interest, still had time to locate and read many of the important biological papers outside of his special area, and could push his own research work along too. For search of the older literature he used the “handbooks,” other review media, the several indexes existing such as the Catalog of the Surgeon General’s Library, the Concilium Bibliographicum, and perhaps decennial subject indexes of his special journals. Also, then as now, he “pyramided” from the lists of references in current papers. Our societies obviously considered their responsibility ended with provision for primary publication and almost never faced the then minor but burgeoning problem of information storage, search, and retrieval. When they did, belatedly, realize the situation acutely, the problems had already grown too large for them to handle. It is not too late, however, for our societies and their primary journals to examine anew their functions in communication and their future place and role in the light of present day conditions and needs. For some strange reason, biological journals and editors are extremely resistant to change and adaptation to changes in our scientific environment. One is tempted to predict that, like the dinosaurs, they will become extinct. For example, the proposals made by Bernal ten years ago for a radical change in our system of primary publication, attractive and desirable in principle as they are, have met with general resistance and opposition. Hence, one must assume that in the foreseeable future our mechanisms for primary publication will continue in about their present form. However, there is reason to believe that our journals would be willing to gradually broaden their responsibilities to cover search and storage-retrieval aspects, without changing their fundamental character. Acceptance of the following extensions of responsibility by several hundred important biological journals that publish basic research papers would seem to be possible: The responsibility for furnishing a suitable abstract and indicia of every research paper published to the secondary service medium of choice for abstracting and indexing, and to such other general systems for information retrieval as may be developed to serve biologists. Supply of abstracts and index terms to the abstracting medium of choice would normally be done at the stage of page proof when the ultimate journal pagination is set in the citation.

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--> Editorial responsibility for rigorous review and quality control of authorfurnished abstracts and indicia. Publication of an abstract, in lieu of a summary, in a standardized form at the beginning of each paper in the journal; and free grant of permission to reproduce the abstract by any specialized information service. Selection of a single common abstracting service, at least within a country. Responsibilities of abstracting and indexing media There is no need in this paper to analyze in full or in detail the responsibilities of our numerous abstracting and indexing services for information storage and retrieval. However, the assumption of the responsibilities by authors and journals as outlined above demands some changes in procedure by a national abstracting service such as Biological Abstracts, and also offers eventually the possibility of more prompt publication, more complete coverage, and considerable reduction of the cost per abstract. Give priority to and publish promptly the abstracts furnished in pageproof form by the cooperating journals. Go as rapidly as possible to direct photo-offset reproduction of the printed abstracts supplied by journal editors. The preparation of Biological Abstracts, for example, would thus change from one of typewriter-composition, careful proofreading, correction, and arranging to a simple cut-arrange-paste job ready for photographic reduction and plate making. As soon as a sufficient number of basic biological journals within a country are cooperating in supplying abstracts in page proof, restrict the abstracting medium to those and to others as they join in the cooperative enterprise. This means that papers published in non-cooperating journals would be excluded from the retrieval mechanisms of the large national abstract and index service. The pressures generated would probably soon compel cooperation by such journals or else authors who desired more than ephemeral attention to their papers would desert them. The number of cooperating journals should be expanded as rapidly as possible, with the aim that at least all the important ones in both basic and applied fields of biology would be included. When these steps are accomplished, prompt appearance of abstracts would be made easy, indeed almost automatic—often they might appear in the abstract service before the article appeared in the primary journal. The cost per abstract of publishing such a medium as Biological Abstracts would be decreased substantially by elimination of composition, proofreading, and correction. Savings could be used for improvement of the indexes, for extending the cover-

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--> age of foreign journals, and for the development of additional search and retrieval services that are needed. Whether or not authors can supply indicia items sufficiently good that professional indexers can quickly transform them into standard entries is questionable, but the experiment should be made. If it is found that they are indeed educable, the job of indexing would be facilitated and made less costly because the intellectual effort required would to a large extent be supplied by the author. In either case the author would benefit from some acquaintance with indexing. Abstracts and indices may prove eventually not to be our best markers for retrieval of biological information. They have become firmly established mechanisms at the present time, however, and it seems logical to push them to the limit of their capabilities rather than to try to supplant them. However, new systems and mechanisms for classification, data processing, search and storage-retrieval of information, and the extension of abstracting and bibliographic services in specialized fields should be put into operation as rapidly as these coincide with demonstrated need. Responsibilities of a national biological information center There is increasing awareness of the need for coordination and adequate financial support for a number of our present individual and uncoordinated activities whose purposes are to make biological information easily available in usable form. Some of these in the United States are the Chemical-Biological Coordination Center, the Handbook of Biological Data, the Medical-Sciences Information Exchange, various compendia and bibliographies in specialized fields. The sad experience of some of these in securing adequate funds over a period of years has caused abandonment or curtailment of the unfinished project in some cases and an inhibition of efforts in starting other desirable projects. A national information center able to support, coordinate, and in some cases integrate such activities would be advantageous. Centralized operation of all activities would probably not be desirable, however. Recently proposals have been broached for the establishment of a Science Information Center in the United States to serve and coordinate the information activities for all fields of science in this country. It is very doubtful that a science-wide enterprise with this scope and with the uncertain and variable sources of support envisaged for it could serve satisfactorily the detailed needs of biological science, urgent and presently unsatisfied though these needs are. Rather, a national center for each of the major areas of science appears preferable, even though some minor overlaps would result. Each center should be adapted to the particular needs of its field, since these differ among the areas of

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--> physics, chemistry, and biology, and should also be adapted to the stage of development of information exchange that its area has attained. A national Biological Information Center that could concentrate on the somewhat special and unique problems of biological information would appear to be practicable, provided that it were not organized and controlled by government, and that it had assurance of adequate financial support not only at its beginning but year after year for many years. Such a center for the United States might well start with Biological Abstracts as its nucleus, but should both expand and speed up its abstracting and indexing services as rapidly as cooperative arrangements can be made with biological journals. It should supply information services including but not limited to abstracts and indexes for specialized and applied areas of biology. It should be prepared to search, organize, classify, and process information and data for machine storage-retrieval. A proposal for financing What is the magnitude of the cost of a comprehensive activity for storage-retrieval of biological information, together with the additional services that should be developed with it? What are the possible sources of financial support? The cost will be a continuing one, year after year indefinitely. With a modest start at perhaps one-fourth or one-fifth of its eventual level, the cost would be expected to increase as rapidly as the services were rounded and completed, requiring perhaps five years. Only an approximate estimate can be made of the present cost of our patchwork of non-government information services and mechanisms. For biology and its applied fields in the United States, the annual expenditure is not far from $1 million. This includes the general and special-field abstracting, indexing, and bibliographic services rendered by societies and other non-profit organizations which are financed chiefly by subscriptions of users. The figure does not include the cost of primary journal publication, review journals, library services, or any information services operated and financed by agencies of the federal government. The funds needed annually for a non-governmental enterprise for biology are of the order of $5 million at the start, with increases over a few years to a level of at least $15 million. To finance an enterprise of this magnitude through annual gifts and contributions seems manifestly impossible. Neither foundations nor industries could commit themselves to making the very sizable grants needed for a long period of years. Direct federal appropriations from public funds would be impossible except to a governmental agency for a government-

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--> controlled operation. This is about the least desirable solution to biological scientists. Support through subscriptions by users of services has not proved to be sufficient in the past nor is it likely that such support for a comprehensive activity could amount to more than one-fifth of the amount needed. It is not generally realized that the cost of information services at a really effective level greatly exceeds the cost of primary publication. What is needed is a source of funds adequate for the activities as they are developed, as nearly automatic in supply as possible, and directly proportional to the total research expenditure as it changes from year to year. In essence, the proposal made here is that the cost of providing an adequate information service for biology be accepted as a part of the responsibility of research support through all our agencies, public and private, that make grants of funds in support of research projects or of research programs. In operation, it would be desirable that all large fund-granting agencies pay directly to a biological information center an amount, say 4 percent, of their annual funds for support of biological research projects and programs that will involve information storage-retrieval services. For many of the smaller fund sources, direct levy at the source would not be practicable. Here our journals of primary publication would play an essential role in levying a charge for the publication of acceptable papers that report research supported by such sources of funds. This charge, uniformly based per thousand words of the printed paper, could be collected by the journal and forwarded to the biological information center. For papers whose authors had no supporting funds in the way of grants or research budgets, the charge would be forgiven. In the cases of some journals publishing research, none of which had grant or budgeted support, no charge at all would be made. In return for its services of supplying edited abstracts and indicia and for collection of publication charges for certain papers, each cooperating journal would receive funds from the biological information center equivalent to, say, 25 percent of the levy of 4 percent on research funds represented in the papers it published. Our biological journals are the key mechanism in this proposal. The willingness of 100 to 200 of them to enter into a cooperative arrangement for a Biological Information Center would be necessary. The arrangement would at least partly solve the vexing financial problems that most primary publication journals now face. The automatic annual addition of funds to their individual economies equivalent to a page charge of about $22 would enable them to clear their backlogs of accepted papers and to keep abreast of future publication demands. Proposals made some twenty-five years ago that research funds subsidize primary publication through page charges were generally rejected by

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--> biologists though accepted by physicists. Now some biological journals have turned to this mechanism, and others are considering it. One obstacle, the refusal of some government agencies to pay page charges for papers from their laboratories, has now been almost entirely removed. Example of a biological journal Assumptions: A journal publishing 2 volumes per year; 700 pages of text per volume or 1400 pages per year; 750 words per page (or equivalent in tables and figures); 6 pages (4500 words or equivalent) per article; 233 articles per year. Sixty percent or 140 of the published papers were supported by grants from agencies that paid directly to a Biological Information Center 4% of their grant funds; 35% or 82 of the published papers required a direct charge of $90 per thousand words at the time of publication in the journal; 5% or 12 of the published articles were from authors lacking any supporting funds for the payment of the charge; for these 75% of the regular levy was paid by the journal to the Biological Information Center. Average expenditure of research-grant funds represented by each paper—Ten Thousand Dollars. Levies and Allocations with respect to the example journal. 1. To Biological Information Center       a) Directly from sources of research grants. 4% of grants represented by 140 papers $56,000     b) Charges made by journal on 82 papers @ S90/1M words 33,000     Total receipts to Biological Information Center   $89,000 2. Allocation to the journal       25% of receipts of Biological Information Center $22,200     Less subsidy paid by journal on 12 papers 3,600     Net income to journal   18,600 3. Net income to Biological Information Center   $70,400 For 200 cooperating journals operating at this average level, the net income to Biological Information Center would be $14 million, and the total net income to the 200 journals would be $3.7 million.

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--> Obstacles The difficulties and obstacles of the proposal should be outlined as well as its advantages. Some of these are the following: The difficulty and slowness are considerable of getting a sufficiently large number of journals to participate in a uniform and detailed plan. General acceptance by fund-granting foundations and agencies, particularly the large ones, would be necessary. General acceptance by other sources of research funds of inclusion of a 4% charge in research budgets. How could papers resulting from unbudgeted research expenditures in academic departments pay a page charge? The apprehension frequently expressed that any discrimination either as to acceptance or to priority for publication would have to be dispelled through careful and appropriate provisions in a plan. Should only the research expenditures that result in publishable information be taxed, or should even the research ventures that failed to produce useful information be included? The amount of participation of journals, usually in an applied field, that publish only a small number of papers that should be included in an information-retrieval system would have to be determined. Research papers resulting from fellowships. The participation of funds that support research fellowships intended primarily to increase the scientific competence of the holders would have to be determined. Should levies on these be made at the source but at a lower rate?

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