If you were asked to imagine a scientist working hard to discover a new drug, what would the image be? Certainly, you’d think about a white-coat clad person in a laboratory, mixing and measuring chemicals with a pipette. While this is what happens in later stages of drug development, you might be surprised that the reality is somewhat more mundane: a scientist spends a lot of time sitting and reading, whether in an office or at home. Despite all the technological progress, reading is still the backbone of scientific discovery.
An average researcher spends about 15 hours per week reading and consumes about 250 articles every year. The thing is, even with reading as a daily habit, it is impossible to keep up with the incessant stream of content—articles, reports, and monographs—published every day. In fact, every year the total number of research papers in biomedical fields grows by 5%: in 2018 there were about 1.4 million new articles indexed in PubMed, while in 2019 the number went up to 1.47 million. Thus, a neuroscientist wishing to keep track of her field will have to dedicate more than two years just to read the 48,080 papers published in 2019. That is, if she never sleeps, eats, or does anything else than reading.
This begs the question: are we missing important opportunities because there is no way for humans to keep up with the knowledge we produce? Are we drowning in a sea of data?
A misstep in the early stages of the research process—reviewing literature—can have devastating logistical, financial, and scientific consequences: an overlooked breakthrough, a redundant clinical trial, or rediscovering what has been already established after much effort. The challenge to harness academic literature is especially daunting in the life sciences and medical research where the convergence of highly specialized disciplines leads to fragmented knowledge scattered across multiple domains.