An Interview with Svetla Baykoucheva

Chemist, Microbiologist, Translator, Editor, Interviewer, Librarian, and Author Extraordinaire

By Vincent F. Scalfani

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Svetla Baykoucheva with her dog Max (right) and a friend’s dog (Cosmo), at Great Falls, Maryland

Bio: Svetla Baykoucheva (Baykousheva) has BA and MS degrees in chemistry, a PhD in microbiology, and an MLIS. For more than 20 years she performed lab-bench research in biological membranes and lipid metabolism and has published more than 40 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Biochemistry, Journal of Chromatography, and FEBS Letters. She spent a significant part of her career at the Institute of Microbiology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Her initial research was focused on the chemical basis of bacterial pathogenicity and the mechanisms by which virulent strains of bacteria survive and overcome the defense systems of the body. As a post-doctoral fellow of the International Atomic Energy Agency, she specialized for one year at the University of Paris VI on the use of isotopes in studying bacterial membranes. While performing research on the metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids in Ohio State University, she enrolled in the Kent State University’s Library & Information Science Program. For eight years she was manager of the ACS Library and Information Center in Washington, D.C. Since 2005 she is the head of the White Memorial Chemistry Library at the University of Maryland College Park, where she manages a busy academic branch library and teaches scientific information. Svetla has also served for five years as editor of the Chemical Information Bulletin (CIB).  In recognition of her work, and particularly for all her efforts to transition the CIB from print to online, she received the prestigious Val Metanomski Meritorious Service Award, which is given to members of the ACS Division of Chemical Information (CINF) who have made outstanding contributions to the Division. Under Svetla’s editorship, CIB gained an attractive new look and layout and was enriched with a wider range of content, including many interviews with scientists, librarians and publishers. Her book “Managing Scientific Information and Research Data” was just published by Elsevier (Chandos Publishing Imprint).

 

“We should really feel lucky that we are living at a time when so much scientific information is available and so many sophisticated tools allow us to retrieve, refine, and manage it.”

            —Svetla Baykoucheva, Managing Scientific Information and Research Data (2015)

 

Vincent F. Scalfani:

Svetla, I first met you in New Orleans at the 245th American Chemical Society Meeting in 2013. You presented a talk in the Chemical Information Division entitled “Role of personal interests, motivation, and timing in the transitioning to a new career.” I remember being fascinated with the diversity of your background as well as the depth of your knowledge in numerous areas such as microbiology, publishing, and scientific information. Can you give us a brief overview of your journey to becoming the Head of the White Memorial Chemistry Library at the University of Maryland, College Park?

Svetla Baykoucheva:

My bio describes my career path. What it does not say, though, is why I have chosen this path. My “dual life” started when I had to decide what undergraduate education I should pursue. My mother was a journalist, and I was brought up in an environment where literature, history, philosophy, and languages were discussed all the time. I was also very interested in the sciences, and particularly in chemistry. My high school in Bulgaria was an English-language school, where everything (except for Bulgarian history and literature) was taught in English. Our chemistry teacher challenged us both scientifically and personally. He had no mercy for us: if someone said something wrong or stupid, he would call it wrong or stupid. He might have influenced my decision to choose chemistry for my undergraduate education.  Another role model for me was Marie Curie, whose life and work inspired me to become a scientist. 

Early in my research career I started following the essays of Eugene Garfield that he was publishing in Current Contents. Although he called them “Essays of an information scientist”(Garfield, 2014), they were devoted to many other topics. I still vividly remember some of these essays — “Are you what you wear?”, “I never forget a face!”, “Memory and super memory: I’ll never forget what’s his name!” Garfield wrote about ice cream, the hazards of sunbathing, and windsurfing. But he also wrote about Scientometrics, Nobel Prizes, citation indexing, scientific publishing, and the British Library. In his essays, he demonstrated that you can talk about serious things without being boring. And that you can write in such a way that even people who are not experts in the field can understand what you are saying.

Reading Garfield’s essays and discussing them with colleagues at the beach while attending international scientific conferences on the Black Sea (I have described this elsewhere (Baykoucheva, 2007)) became a favorite pastime for me. Along with performing research in the lab, I began writing articles for popular science and literary journals on a broad range of topics. My interest in languages created a parallel career for me as a translator and editor of scientific and other publications.

My stay in Paris for one year as a postdoctoral fellow of the International Atomic Energy Agency allowed me to learn new research techniques and broadened my interests in literature and history. Upon my return to Bulgaria, I published articles about cultural life in France and historical places that I had visited.  I wrote about the megaliths in Brittany, Carcassonne (an ancient fortress in the South of France), French literary awards, the French literary program “Apostrophes,” the events of May ’68 in Paris, and many other things. All these topics required extensive research in history, literature and even politics. When looking back, I can now see that the seeds for my transition from the lab bench to information science were planted at that time.

VFS:

Congratulations on your new book, “Managing Scientific Information and Research Data.” In the past, you have been very active with publishing peer reviewed articles. Is this your first book? What was your experience like transitioning from writing articles to writing a monograph?

SB:

Writing and publishing a book is a very different experience from writing an article for a peer review journal. This is my first book, and when I was writing it, I kept in mind that it might be read by people who are not experts in the topics I was discussing. A book gives you more flexibility to approach topics from different angles. Sometimes, I was not sure where to draw the line between presenting an issue and sharing my personal experiences. When writing a paper for peer review journals, you don’t have these concerns. The production stage was a very challenging experience for me. There are many citations in the book, and making sure that all are correct was a daunting task. I had to go through the whole book many, many times, and each time I found something that needed to be corrected. I have read somewhere that an author never finishes a book; he just lets it go. The challenge is even bigger when you are writing on topics that are changing so quickly. I agreed to do the book index myself and had to learn how to use a program that could index large PDF files. This made my involvement in the production even more intense. While working on the book, I learned many new things. Without having to do the research for the book, I might have never learned them. I had complete freedom to write the book as I wanted. The editor, George Knott, and the publisher, Glyn Jones, as well as the staff of Elsevier/Chandos Publishing provided me with great support throughout the whole process.

VFS:

Why did you write “Managing Scientific Information and Research Data?”  What gap does your book fill in the scholarly literature? 

SB:

With science becoming more and more interdisciplinary and the volume of data growing so fast, there is a need to look at scientific information and how we manage it from a new and broader perspective. The book discusses this topic from many different angles. Scientific communication, ethics in publishing, new communication models, peer review, data management, eScience, and electronic laboratory notebooks are all discussed in the context of the main theme of the book. A critical analysis of the traditional metrics for evaluating research, as well as the new area of Altmetrics, which measures attention to research, are discussed in several chapters. The format of the book is unusual: some of the chapters are reviews of particular areas, others are interviews with experts in scientific information and publishing, and there are also chapters that provide practical information that can be used to teach information literacy or just to improve your own research skills. 

VFS:

What messages do you hope readers will take home from “Managing Scientific Information and Research Data?” Moreover, what questions or opportunities do you hope your book creates?

SB:

My goal in writing this book was to introduce students, researchers, and librarians to some new areas of publishing and scientific information. I also wanted academic librarians to see their roles in a new light and get them excited to do new things. I hope I was able to convey my enthusiasm for teaching information literacy, as I am convinced that information literacy, as it is discussed in the book, will be one of the most interesting areas of engagement for academic librarians, but they have to do it with passion.

VFS:

When you were Editor of the ACS Chemical Information Bulletin from 2005-2010, you conducted numerous interviews with scientists, editors, and scientific information experts (www.acscinf.org/content/interviews). After 2010, you continued to do such interviews as a contributor to the CIB. How have these interviews advanced your understanding of how to manage scientific information and research data? Further, your interviews are an integral component of your new book. How do these interviews fit into managing scientific information and data?

SB:

The interviews that I did for the Bulletin provided me with many ideas and helped me see STEM publishing and scientific information from many different sides. The interviews included in the book are very important, as they approach these topics in different ways. One of the interviews is with John Fourkas, associate editor of the ACS Journal of Physical Chemistry, who shares an insider’s view on how articles submitted for publication are processed and evaluated. Chérifa Boukacem-Zeghmouri gives an interesting perspective on how graduate students and experienced researchers in French academic institutions gather information and use social media. Gary Wiggins discusses the challenges presented by the complexity of chemical information and the changing role of science librarians. Eugene Garfield describes how he came up with the idea of using citations in scientific articles to organize and manage information and to create the Science Citation Index. The latter became the foundation on which Web of Science and other important information products were built. The interview with Bonnie Lawlor was previously published in the Bulletin (Baykoucheva, 2010). Bonnie worked at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) for 28 years and in her interview she vividly describes the atmosphere there in the 1960s, when the Science Citation Index, Current Contents, and other innovative products were created. She also talks about what it was like to work with Eugene Garfield. All of these interviews, in one way or another, cast light on the central topic of the book: managing scientific information and research data.

VFS:

In your introductory chapter you wrote that “organizing scientific information is at the core of doing science.” This is a surprisingly simple statement, but also incredibly profound. Has this thought guided your career?

SB:

I would like to answer this question with a quote from my book:

“We cannot imagine what science would have looked like today without the Periodic Table of the Elements in which Dmitrii Mendeleev not only arranged the existing chemical elements, but also included reserved spaces for those not yet discovered... The management of scientific information starts with how scientists gather information, organize their data, and communicate their findings. Today, they can “hang out” in the same environment where they can do so many things: search for literature and property information at the same time; see how many times an article they were looking at has been viewed, downloaded, and cited; forward an interesting article to others and comment on it; and find out what others are saying about their own research on Twitter and Facebook. Creating, organizing, searching, finding, and managing scientific information are all “moments” that blend seamlessly with research activity at the lab bench and into our lives.”

VFS:

Over the past several decades you have been part of many changes in the way scientific information and research data are disseminated and managed. For example, you led the transition of publishing the CIB from print to online back in 2010 and have more recently introduced electronic laboratory notebooks at the University of Maryland, College Park. What do you see as some of our biggest challenges moving forward with managing scientific and research data? What advice would you give to current and future researchers, librarians, and information specialists? 

SB:

The biggest challenge is keeping up with the technology. Each time a new tool or device comes out, many people rush to use it. We should not miss, though, what is important in terms of content.

In 2012 I attended the Annual Conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) held in Helsinki (Finland). An interesting discussion took place when a librarian from a Finnish public library reported how the library had introduced two new services. One of them was called “Ask Us Anything,” and the other one was promoted as “Ask a Librarian.” The first service received many requests, while people rarely used the “Ask a Librarian” service. The conclusion was that the word “librarian” might have somehow made people more reluctant to seek help from that service. Academic libraries are confronted with many challenges and are forced to redefine their role in supporting research and education in their institutions. This will require re-skilling of librarians and new attitudes.

We are at a stage when the academic libraries are trying to play a role in data management and eScience. Time will show whether these efforts will be worth pursuing further.

VFS:

Lastly, in my subtitle I characterized you as a Chemist, Microbiologist, Translator, Editor, Interviewer, Librarian, and Author. Is there anything I missed? What else brings you joy either professionally or in your personal life?

SB: 

I have been through many hobbies, interests, sometimes even obsessions. I rarely read novels, anymore. I read history books, literary criticism, books on technology, scientific writing, and biographies. I like gadgets and have done a lot of digital photography and digital videos. When working at ACS, I made a video with an interview with Peter Stang, the editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). This video was shown at formal events at an ACS national meeting in New York. Video editing takes a lot of time, and with my writing, I don’t have time to do it very often, anymore.  I have posted some of my photographs of libraries and some cultural landmarks (Musée d’Orsay, the grave of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald) on the web page of the Chemistry Library of the University of Maryland College Park (http://www.lib.umd.edu/chemistry/photo-gallery/home). I also love dogs, hiking, and traveling.

As I have described elsewhere (Baykoucheva, 2007), the scope of my research has allowed me to establish close professional and even personal ties with many scientists in the United States, France, and many European countries. Without the support of many organizations, administrators, friends, colleagues, and my family, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have achieved. When working at the ACS, I was able to gain an insider’s view of the scientific publishing field, attend many professional conferences in the United States and abroad, and establish long-lasting connections with many scientists, editors of scientific journals, publishers, and librarians. CINF has supported many of my activities and allowed me to use in the book extensive quotes from my interviews published in the Bulletin. I was very fortunate to come across so many interesting opportunities and meet such extraordinary people.

Links to articles related to “Managing Scientific Information and Research Data”

From the Science Citation Index to the Journal Impact Factor and Web of Science

http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/science-citation-index-impact-factor/

Scientific Fraud: “Why researchers Do It?” [sic]

http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/scientific-fraud-researchers/ (includes a free copy of Chapter 3 of the book, “Ethics in publishing”)

Untangling authors’ names:

http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/untangling-authors-names/  

References

Baykoucheva, S. (2007). A Career in Science and Politics: Guy Ourisson (1926-2006). Chemical Information Bulletin, 59(2), 4-6. http://hdl.handle.net/1903/11414.

Baykoucheva, S. (2010). From the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) to the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS): Interview with Bonnie Lawlor. Chemical Information Bulletin. 62, from http://acscinf.org/content/institute-scientific-information-isi-national-federation-advanced-information-services-nfais

Garfield, E. (2014). Essays of an Information Scientist - Eugene Garfield.   Retrieved August 31, 2014, from http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays.html