MacMullen, W. John. Understanding biocurators: Attributes and roles of model organism database curators. Poster for the Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting, May 2008.
[PDF of poster]


Biocurators are subject-matter experts who curate knowledge from the biomedical literature and other sources to enrich the content of model organism databases and other biomedical information resources. This project describes biocurators' educational backgrounds and biological expertise, organisms with which they have laboratory- and Gene Ontology annotation experience, and details about their work tasks and roles.

Contextual data about educational backgrounds (degree levels and subjects), subject-matter expertise (specializations and experience), and work roles was collected from 31 biocurators as a part of two larger studies of Gene Ontology annotation variation. A brief self-report questionnaire was used to obtain curators’ background information. Individual semi-structured 30-minute interviews were conducted with 15 curators, and a 60-minute focus group was conducted with 12 biocurators, some from the same cohort. The interviews and focus group explored the tasks, workflows, and practice environments of the curators. The data were analyzed with descriptive statistics for the questionnaire data and content analysis for the interview and focus group data.

Most (90%) biocurators studied held Ph.D degrees, in such subject areas as genetics (28%), biochemistry (10%), and molecular biology (10%), and had extensive laboratory experience. The years of GO annotation experience biocurators reported ranged from a few months to several years. Biocurators' tasks include Gene Ontology annotation, phenotype characterization, linking to other information resources, and supplementary indexing using specialized controlled vocabularies to provide end-users with access points that are tied to biological entities (e.g., genes) rather than scientific articles, and are more granular and specialized than topical (MeSH) indexing. Biocurators also participate in interface design and end-user education and support.

In addition to being users of library services, biocurators are both peers of, and potential collaborators for, librarians in the health and biomedical sciences. Librarians serving biomedical research populations should be aware of the attributes and roles of biocurators, whose roles are so similar to their own.