ANALYSIS & OPINION

Walk a mile in their shoes

Anton Yuryev outlines some of the needs of researchers in the 21st Century

The world of scientific research and publishing continues to evolve rapidly. New developments and breakthroughs in science and technology – combined with changing societal priorities and an emergence of new publishing tools and platforms – have created a perfect storm. This ‘data deluge’ has led to the increasingly widespread adoption of digital tools and solutions in R&D, in an effort to handle growing amounts of information. However, while access to data is crucial, the sheer volume now available to researchers can actually hamper their productivity and make research inefficient.
The challenge for the research function in any industry sector, is to provide researchers with technology solutions that enable them to remain productive and accelerate their research.

This means being able to filter out ‘noise’, interrogate data at speed and be able to trust the results presented. The question, then, of who designs these tools, is an important one. A blend of technological and scientific experience is needed, alongside a deep understanding of organising data. In short, tools must be developed by researchers – essentially, by people with an understanding of the minds and methods of researchers because they conduct research themselves. There is little point in technological experts, however skilled they are, designing a tool which looks good and works fast, if it doesn’t work well. Scientific knowledge coupled with experience in research and publishing are crucial.

Staying at the ‘coal face’

Elsevier has been publishing scientific literature for almost 140 years, right up to the present day. Along the way, the company has worked hard to meet the ever-changing needs of researchers in a dynamic world, developing a number of digital tools that help researchers in life sciences, engineering, chemicals and oil and gas conduct critical research and make sense of data. A key part of this effort, ensuring that our tools meet the needs of the research community, has been for the teams responsible for designing them to remain at the ‘coal face’.

To support this, I and my team at Elsevier’s professional services division are tasked with publishing at least one piece of original research each year. The team regularly exceeds this target, on average publishing 2-3 pieces each across disciplines, including developing new pathways for precision medicine, analysing cell-signal transduction pathways in various therapeutic areas, and/or characterising newly sequenced genomes. The importance of ‘keeping your hand in’ when it comes to scientific research cannot be overstated. In conducting their own research, the team can put themselves in the place of users and gain valuable insights.

How real-world research improves tool design

By remaining a group of active scientists, the professional services team can understand how a tool or particular workflow operates in a real-world situation, and how tools are used by researchers. This ultimately informs the design of future workflow functionality. A recent example of this in action was the new version of our biological database tool, Pathway Studio, released in 2017. Using it for my own research developing a pathway collection of personalised anti-cancer therapies, I noticed an improvement that could be made to increase the relevance of results following a query. If users could tell the software exactly which therapeutic area or tissue they wish to focus on, results would be even more accurate. Consequently, the latest version now allows users to specify certain subsets of pathway collection during a query, to obtain the most relevant results for the interpretation of their experimental data. 

In addition, conducting research not only ensures improved design, but helps the team to contribute to the body of knowledge on a particular area. Each model or biological pathway created in the course of the team’s published literature is fed straight back into the tools, meaning the models and pathways can be accessed by other users. Information on 15,000 diseases, for example, is held in Pathway Studio. By creating pathways for some of these diseases – in 2016, the team published pathways on diabetes, alopecia and cancer – the professional services team is helping researchers on independent projects working on these same diseases.

Meeting the future needs of the research community

There is no doubt technology and science will continue to transform at breakneck speed. New data sources, alongside published scientific literature, will continue to proliferate and add to the deluge. Consider, for example, the boom in genetic sequencing for both research and consumer segments – recent analysis found genomic data is the fastest growing data set in the world. Or, the growth in Electronic Health Records, patient data from which is increasingly used in drug discovery and development. The future will demand researchers can harmonise these new data sets with published literature. Doing so will require the means to pull data together and draw meaningful conclusions from it – with the support of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning.

This will mean we see a shift in research emphasis; it will become less experimental, and more analytical – so researchers spend less time pulling data together and more time analysing relevant results. As a result, experiments will be more efficiently designed, to avoid simply replicating research that has gone before and design experiments that can truly advance scientific knowledge.

To do this successfully, software for better research data management is needed; this will help to unlock the deeper potential of research by comparing datasets against the recognised characteristics of ‘good’ data. Further, in order for any AI algorithm to work accurately, it will require this kind of comprehensive underlying data set, mined from published literature. These solutions must be created by individuals with extensive experience of conducting research, and can ‘train’ an AI to produce reliable results. Elsevier will support the future needs of the research community as this shift takes place by continuing to actively carry out research that helps its teams walk a mile in the shoes of researchers.

Anton Yuryev is director of professional services, Elsevier R&D Solutions

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