Biology is an old and venerable discipline. Evidence from approximately 3000 BC suggests that people had a reasonable knowledge of living systems and basic biological principles. The Greeks brought biology to the level we now would call a science. The Arabic world was responsible, as it was for so many other areas, for retaining, refining, and adding to the store of knowledge regarding biology. The reawakening during the Renaissance was an impetus to biology, and new advances came more frequently. Work by Pasteur and Koch laid the groundwork for microbiology. Hook’s work opened the doors to cellular biology. Mendel laid the foundations for genetics. Through all the examples above, there is a thread. Each scientist used techniques or apparatus from other fields to further biology. Indeed, the use of chemistry and physical models led directly to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Perhaps because it is an old discipline, biology is also multifaceted and multidisciplinary. “Biology” as a term is thus inadequate to describe the field. Investigators generally focus on one aspect of the field. In this, biology shares a great deal with physics. The trend in biology to specialize will continue. One effect of this specialization is the splintering of biology literature into outlets (journals and other forms) that match or attempt to match the specialization. This means that the questions put to the information specialist will continue to be more specialized.
The structure of the biological literature is placing increased emphasis on interdisciplinary tools and literatures. In some sense, it appears to the outsider that biology has opened Pandora’s box of the rest of science and technology and is using all that it can find. This perception is not far from the truth. Biology has considerable cross-pollination with other disciplines, for two reasons. First, interdisciplinarity is now part of the culture of biology. Chemists, for instance, find it relatively easy to move into and through major portions of the biological literature. The second reason is a phenomenon that spans all areas of science and technology: the changes in government funding that reward interdisciplinary work. Biology is “ahead” in this regard because it already has a culture that accepts interdisciplinary work. An example of an area in which biology has received both attention and funding is the human genome project.
The human genome project is important for another reason. Biologists determined early in the project that offering the results of the mapping process in paper form did not convey the results in the most suitable manner. Thus, the project results are now available via the World Wide Web. Although some specific issues of interpretation and technique are discussed in the traditional literature, this is an example of a major scientific project that is making good use of electronic resources.
Bibliographic control in biology is a function of frustration. The focus on specificity is maddening to most traditional librarians. This specialization, combined with the subsuming of other discipline specialities, makes the control of its literature difficult. However, the biological literature is generally well documented. The print source Biological Abstracts and the online version BIOSIS are renowned for their coverage.
Recently there has been some attempt to rein in the proliferation of biological journals as they develop into ever-smaller specialities. This movement has met with some resistance because the journal proliferation mirrors the proliferation of specialization in biology itself.
Biology is journal-driven for the most part. The major advanced and continuation literature are published in the traditional archive journal. Good use is made of conference literature, because in a field that moves so rapidly, conferences are one way to disseminate information widely. The number and range of conferences parallels the specialization movement in biology. As with all conference proceedings and conference literature, there are problems of access and identification. Moreover, conference literature in biology is elusive and poorly controlled.
Biology is an old science with a venerable history. It is also a rapidly evolving discipline that is changing before our eyes in terms of both research and dissemination of research.
Monday, March 7, 2016
Hurt, C. D. Information Sources in Science and Technology, 3rd ed. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1998. pp. 39-40.