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Suggested Citation:"Special Problems in Handling Biological Information." National Research Council. 1970. The Life Sciences: Recent Progress and Application to Human Affairs The World of Biological Research Requirements for the Future. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9575.
Page 407

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COMMUNICATION IN THE LIFE SCIENCES efforts to promote both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary understand- ing and progress? Federal agencies support both research and information services; how- ever, this support occurs by independent mechanisms with no direct coupling and feedback. The present chapter will not offer specific recom- mendations for overhaul of the biological information services network, but will examine it from the standpoint of working biologists and offer some guiding philosophy. SPECIAL PROBLEMS IN HANDLING BIOLOGICAL INFORMATION While biologists, physicists, and chemists face similar problems in handling rapidly expanding information, and while all disciplines recognize the need for structured systems of information handling, storage, and retrieval, spe- cial needs arise within each discipline. For biologists, the overwhelming volume of published material is a special problem. Of the 26,000 distinct scientific and technical journals published annually, the life sciences claim no less than 50 percent (20 percent for agnculture, 13 percent for medical sciences, 4 percent for basic life sciences, and 10 percent for technology), or 13,000 serial publications. Not only are individual scientists obviously unable to deal with this plethora; libraries and abstracting services are inundated by it. It is important, therefore, to ask how much of this volume is critical. Biological Abstracts,* in 1968, abstracted 7,400 periodicals, yet most of these are unlikely to publish truly significant new findings that will materially advance the progress of science. Indeed, it is possible to identify about 1,000 journals in which more than 90 percent of the truly significant original work in biology now appears. Another special problem in biological information springs from the diversity of subject matter and of experimental approaches to understanding the living world. Thus, biology encompasses explorations of subcellular organization, of organisms from viruses and bacteria through the primates, of highly complex communities and ecosystems, from the kinetics of a chemical reaction to the behavior of populations. This diversity is reflected in the 20 major program categories the National Science Foundation finds necessary for biology, compared with four for chemistry and 10 for physics. The information needs of the individual working scientist, whose interests lie mainly within one of these 20 categories, are largely satisfied within 5 to 10 percent of the 1,000 journals mentioned above. For the rest, he is Biological A bstracts. BioSciences Information Service of Biological Abstracts. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1926. 407

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