Final session of the Biocuration2021 virtual conference

By Federica Quaglia

The fourth and final session of the ISB2021 14th annual conference (virtual) took place on October 5th, 2021, featuring the Annual General Meeting (i), a Panel Discussion on Strategic Planning with former ISB Executive Committee (EC) members (ii), talks from the Biocuration Awards recipients in 2021 (iii) and a Poster Session (iv).

During the Annual General Meeting, Nicole Vasilevsky, chair of the ISB EC, talked about the current status of ISB and the future directions of the Society. Four invited Panelists joined the Panel Discussion on Strategic Planning: Pascale Gaudet, Mike Cherry, Andrew Su and Monica Munoz-Torres, all of them being former members of the Executive of ISB. Finally, talks from the recipients of this year’s Biocuration Awards were presented: Amos Bairoch (2021 Exceptional Contribution to Biocuration Award) and Anne Niknejad (2021 Biocuration Award).

A Poster Session was carried out in gather.town, on a dedicated space entirely set up for the ISB, and followed by a social hour for ISB members and conference participants to interact and exchange ideas.

Annual General Meeting

The talk – led by the ISB EC Chair Nicole Vasilevsky – started with an overview of the current ISB Executive Committee, composed by nine members, that in 2020-2021 included Nicole Vasilevsky, (USA, Chair), Ruth Lovering (UK, Secretary), Robin Haw (Canada, Treasurer), Rama Balakrishnan (USA), Frederic Bastian (Switzerland), Jane Lomax (UK), Randi Vita (USA), Mary Ann Tuli (UK), and Sandra Orchard (UK). Three members, Sandra, Frederic and Jane, concluded their mandate in the ISB EC, while Mary Ann was re-elected along with three newly elected ISB members for the 2021-2024 term: Federica Quaglia, Sushma Naitani and Parul Gupta. 

The ISB EC work in the past year included also the activities of several subcommittees, composed by ISB EC members and external members too: 

  • Outreach and Training (Chair: Randi Vita) 
  • IT infrastructure (Chair: Ruth Lovering) 
  • Fellowships and Awards (Chair: Frederic Bastian) 
  • Conference coordination (Co-chair: Rama Balakrishnan, Sue Bello) 
  • Elections (Officer: Petra Fey)
  • Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The ISB was founded in 2009, and since then the main goals of the society have been to promote the work of biocurators and encourage best practices in biocuration, and to foster communications and connections amongst the members. To this end, there are formal memberships in the society – currently including 232 members – although anybody in the community is welcome to participate in most of the activities. Relevant information on how to join the society (https://www.biocuration.org/membership/membership-levels/) and on the benefits associated with the ISB membership (https://www.biocuration.org/membership/join-isb/) can be found on the website.

A report of ISB finances for the last year, 2020, shows that we have collected over 7000 CHF – the society is based in Switzerland – and the expenditures include sponsorships and some administrative fees and taxes while currently operating on a balance of over 121.000 CHF. The ISB offers travel fellowships, funds attendees to join our conferences (when meeting in person), but also funds micro-grants and various proposals including smaller gatherings for curators to meet and work together, e.g. to visit another group and learn about new techniques or workflows. For members of the ISB we offer a discount on the publications in our affiliated journal, Database: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation (https://academic.oup.com/database). To promote the work of our members in the society and in the field of biocuration we have a mailing list and a quarterly newsletter – organized by Mary-Ann Tuli – to communicate and disseminate information to our community of over 700 members. Finally, the ISB Twitter account (https://twitter.com/biocurator) actively advertises news related to the society and to the biocuration field.
There are also two dedicated ISB awards that we offer yearly, the exceptional contribution to biocuration award and the biocuration career award, the recipients this year being Amos Bairoch and Anne Niknejad.

In an effort to assess the work of biocurators the ISB sent out a survey during the last year, that shed light on biocuration-related work positions, satisfaction, work environment, leadership levels and scholarly products. Highlights are shown below and the results of the survey are available here.

The survey had over 130 respondents – 74% out of them are women and 25% men. Interestingly, the majority of respondents have been in the field for over 10 years (62%), suggesting their satisfaction and identifying biocuration as a stable career choice. For what concerns salary range of biocurators, half of respondents (54.2%) earns between 50 and 100k a year in US dollars. Further inquiring on the the work environment highlighted some flexibility in the work schedule (identified as flexibility during regular business hours) for 62% biocurators, while 30% are actually able to choose their own working hours. Among the biocurators involved in the survey, 84% are satisfied with their job, with their work environment (79%), professional success (62%) and career progression (56%) – people are overall highly satisfied – with under half of respondents (49.65%) that have also been promoted during their career. In terms of leadership opportunities, we were able to identify four main areas of leadership for biocurators, namely manuscript drafting and publication (82%), project leading (72%), staff management (47%) and writing grants applications (38%), pointing up to the involvement of biocurators in managerial positions and further supporting the high rate of satisfaction in biocuration careers. Finally, the survey identified the five main types of scholarly products generated by biocurators, i.e. curated datasets (87%), publications (41%), talks at conferences (15%), softwares (12%) and codes (6%), identifying a need for ways that could increase the articles published by biocurators.

Panel Discussion on Strategic Planning with former EC committee members at the Biocuration2021 virtual conference

The Panel Discussion on Strategic Planning was joined by former members of the Executive Committee of ISB, Pascale Gaudet, Mike Cherry, Andrew Su and Monica Munoz-Torres.

  • Andrew Su: Professor at Scripps Research. Representative projects include the Gene Wiki, and BioThings Explorer. He served on the ISB from 2016-2019.
  • Mike Cherry: Professor of Genetics at Stanford University. He oversees the Saccharomyces Genome Database. As well, he is involved in ENCODE (Encyclopedia of DNA elements), Gene Ontology Consortium, Alliance of Genome Resources, RegulomeDB, and Lattice: Human Cell Atlas. He served on the ISB from 2010-2016 and acted as chair from 2015-2016.
  • Pascale Gaudet: Senior Project Manager in the Swiss-Prot group of the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. Project Manager of the Gene Ontology project. She is a founding member of the ISB and acted as Chair of the ISB Executive Committee from 2009 to 2013.
  • Monica Munoz-Torres: Associate Research Professor in the Center for Health Artificial Intelligence at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Director of Operations for the Center for Cancer Data Harmonization (for NIH/NCI) and Program Director for the Phenomics First Resource (an NHGRI CEGS) and the Monarch Initiative. She served on the ISB Executive Committee from 2012 through 2017, as Secretary in 2012-2016 and as Chair in 2016-2017.

The discussion started with the panelists’ reflections on the very beginning of the ISB and on how those dreams and hopes became reality over the years, while continuously looking at the future of biocuration and at new ways to improve our profession by serving in the Society.

The ISB has a well-established central role in fostering and building connections among the members, in first place thanks to the meetings that took place over the years and now including additional venues that facilitate our interactions, such as a mailing list, newsletter, our Twitter account and a dedicated Slack workspace. Awards and microgrants have also played a crucial role in raising awareness on the centrality of biocuration careers inside the scientific community and in supporting knowledge-exchange between biocurators from different groups. It is fundamental to reach a better appreciation of biocuration as a means to advance scientific research by making research data shareable and accessible in a standardized format, especially at the level of funding agencies. These topics have a particular relevance when paired with the advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence: these indeed can not replace expert literature curation, vice versa machines can be supported by biocurators via the use of carefully curated high quality annotations.

Over the years following its foundations, the ISB has been growing to be more inclusive and diverse and focused on developing and implementing a code of professional conduct. The introduction of several subcommittees, composed not only of EC members but of the greater ISB members too, raised the opportunity to increase the ability to volunteer in the activities of the ISB. The society is now also exploring new ways to cover a variety of professional experiences by engaging biocurators in poorly-represented geographical areas and by welcoming graduate students, by considering introduction of  a dedicated “students section”.

Our society also benefited from the efforts of the ISB EC back in 2008, with the establishment of a dedicated journal, Database: The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation (https://academic.oup.com/database). This peer-reviewed journal is now at the forefront in the publication of biocuration-related articles, providing also a 20% discount on publication fees to members of the ISB. The existence of a specific journal for biocuration positively affected our field – it was usually hard to publish in traditional scientific journals – and provided our community with a specific venue to publish our research work. It is worth considering the option to provide microgrants to cover publication costs in Database, in those situations where a restricted access to funding prevents the submission of manuscripts to a scientific journal. Finally, an additional option would be considering the micropublication system, where no publication cost is involved while still allowing to make research data public (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5836261/, https://www.micropublication.org/).  

Although a result of the ongoing global pandemic, this year’s virtual conference overall received great feedback as it has been more accessible by allowing everyone to attend, even those who could not afford to travel e.g. due to family commitments. It was therefore proposed to keep on maintaining some virtual events even once the restrictions related to the pandemic will be lifted and the conference will resume in presence.

Finally, panelists unanimously agreed on the relevance of the ISB in supporting and promoting career development for biocurators, with a great starting point being the establishment of formal training opportunities and professional certificates that did not previously exist in the field. At the same time, creating, maintaining and sharing FAIR training materials (Goblet, ELIXIR TeSS) should be even more supported and pursued, while also providing dedicated learning sessions where to present them. 

All these directions will play a crucial role in our job security and will make room for professional development of biocuration careers, actively supported by the International Society for Biocuration.