Curating Science

Here is an excerpt from an essay that I recently wrote for 3quarksdaily and I wanted to post it here because I think that the discussion also applies to “curating” scientific information.


Curating Creativity


For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.”

Jorge Luis Borges, “Library of Babel


The British-Australian art curator Nick Waterlow was tragically murdered on November 9, 2009 in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. His untimely death shocked the Australian art community, not only because of the gruesome nature of his death – Waterlow was stabbed alongside his daughter by his mentally ill son – but also because his death represented a major blow to the burgeoning Australian art community. He was a highly regarded art curator, who had served as a director of the Sydney Biennale and international art exhibitions and was also an art ambassador who brought together artists and audiences from all over the world.

After his untimely death, his partner Juliet Darling discovered some notes that Waterlow had jotted down shortly before his untimely death to characterize what defines and motivates a good art curator and he gave them the eerily prescient title “A Curator’s Last Will and Testament”:

1. Passion

2. An eye of discernment

3. An empty vessel

4. An ability to be uncertain

5. Belief in the necessity of art and artists

6. A medium— bringing a passionate and informed understanding of works of art to an audience in ways that will stimulate, inspire, question

7. Making possible the altering of perception.

Waterlow’s notes help dismantle the cliché of stuffy old curators walking around in museums who ensure that their collections remain unblemished and instead portray the curator as a passionate person who is motivated by a desire to inspire artists and audiences alike.


You can read the complete essay here.

Biomedical research also produces a huge torrent of information and we are at risk of drowning in this vast ocean of scientific data. Our choices of what scientific papers we read, discuss or pass on to our colleagues are often quite arbitrary. My laboratory currently focuses on stem cell biology, especially in the context of cardiovascular differentiation and cardiovascular disease. When I searched the PubMed database for papers published in 2012 on “stem cells”, the search identified 18,409 articles. A search with the keyword “cardiovascular” turned up 51,794 papers in 2012. Obviously no person can read and understand 70,000 research papers in a single year, therefore it is critical to “curate” and select the most relevant articles. Importantly, creative research ideas usually emerge when one is inspired by scientific ideas that lie outside of one’s own area of research. A cardiovascular stem cell researcher in search for novel ideas should therefore not only read papers on cardiovascular research and stem cell biology, but also stay abreast of important developments in other areas, such as neurobiology, evolutionary biology, epigenetics or structural biology.

We all have developed our own personal ways of how we curate scientific content. We scan the table of contents of our favorite journals or receive email alerts from the journals, we may rely on scientific meetings and colleagues to inform us about new scientific developments or we browse science blogs – in most cases, our curatorial process is a combination of multiple approaches.

I hope that Scilogs readers will comment on their personal “algorithms” or methods of how they handle the science information glut in the comment section of this post.

How do you decide which biomedical research articles to read?

Do you primarily base your choices on PubMed keyword searches or table of contents / email notices from selected journals?

Do you regularly speak to colleagues or participate in journal clubs to identify important articles?

Is your choice of reading materials biased in favor of high-impact journals or high-impact researchers?

How do you choose articles you want to blog about, comment on or cite?

By sharing our experiences, we might be able to learn from each other, improve our curatorial skills and become better at managing the biomedical information deluge.



One thought on “Curating Science

  1. Jalees,
    You can look at part of my filtering here –
    I wrote an article, but it’s not currently available online (site issues).

    Briefly about my personal filters:
    1. RSS feed – includes blogs, some journals, PubMed (query “stem cell” ~ 50-70 articles every day) –>
    2. Bookmarking (Connotea, Mendeley, Delicious). About 10% of PubMed articles will be bookmarked, 5% read abstract, 0.5% read part or whole article or commentaries, half of articles I’ve read will be blogged –>
    3. Google news channel “stem cell” or “cell therapy”, newsletter subscriptions via email.
    4. Blogging

    Collaborative filters:
    1. Sharing + discussion news on twitter, LinkeIn, blog.
    2. More in depth discussions on LinkedIn and email.
    3. Following other collaborative filters, such as Faculty of 1000 (not subscribed anymore).
    4. In person discussion on conferences and meetings.


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