Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Are you a Computational Biologist or Bioinformaticist or Bioinformatician?

A recent discussion was provoked by on twitter January 8 regarding what is the choice term for referring to those researchers working on Bioinformatics and Computational Biology fields.
This debate is older than people may think and it looks like an insignificant topic, but when you are writing your CV or your internet profile, or you’re looking for a new job, you will need a professional title, and that is really important. If you also look the volume of discussion and opinions about this topic on internet you will realize that the community have different points of view. I've use some of my spare time to read in detail different opinions about it, and also collect some those opinions and articles. Let’s see what common terms are used nowadays for these researchers:

Bioinformaticist, Bioinformatician, Computational Biologist, Digital biologist, bioinformatics analyst

In 2010 Grant Jacobs (@BioinfoTools) defined some of these categories in a post “More on ‘What is a computational biologist?’ (and related disciplines)”:

Computational biologist: Specialists, focusing on developing and applying theoretical biology.

Bioinformaticist: Generalists, developers/advanced users of informatics tools that manipulate biological data.

Digital biologist / bioinformatics analyst: Biologists who conduct bioinformatics analyses full-time, but don’t develop software (I prefer the latter term).

All of these terms are used in different context and situations; and this in fact tends to confuse young researchers in bioinformatics. The term Bioinformatician is commonly used in substitution of Bioinformaticist. From my point of view Digital biologist / bioinformatics analyst is almost never used and for that reason I will not comment in this post. 

Bioinformatician or Bioinformaticist:

Bioinformaticist had been replaced during recent years by Bioinformatician and some of the reasons can be found in different posts:

I think it has something to do with the termination of the word. Bioinformatics lends itself better to bioinformatician, just as mathematician sounds better than mathematicist. I would assume that fields ending in -tics (e.g. statistics) universally sound better with -tician, as it seems to be a more natural progression from the termination of the word.

I don't think there is a correct answer. For example, why do we say "mathematician", yet we say "physicist"?. I think most people choose which sounds better, to their ear. For me, that choice is "bioinformatician".

Bioinformaticist is an expert who not only knows how to use bioinformatics tools, but also knows how to write interfaces for effective use of the tools Bioinformatician on the other hand, is a trained individual who only knows to use bioinformatics tools without a deeper understanding.

Even when some people still use bionformaticist, as far as I can see, the term is obsolete and most of the bioinfo community members on internet (twitter, linkedin) dislike the old term. The Bioinformatician concept that is person, who only knows to use bioinformatics tools without a deeper understanding, looks more like a title for a bad bioinformatician rather than the current bioinformatician concept. From my point of view and what I see of how this term is currently used:

Bioinformatician: Bioinformatician tend to be generalists, computing skills can be applied across a fairly wide range of biological problems. Its nature does not require a deep biological knowledge, instead a bioinformatician also have known about fields such statistics and information theory. See also the post My formula as a Bioinformatician

Even Google suggest replacing the term Bioinformaticist by Bioinformatician.

Google suggestion for Bioinformaticist word.

Bioinformatician or Computational Biologist:

Some concepts about what is a computational biologist:

What characterizes computational biology (to me) is not a theoretical (read: basic) knowledge of biology, it is a knowledge of theoretical biology, a quite different (and more involved, detailed).

Computational biologists are leveraging specialist knowledge from particular areas generating results or developing tools that can be used by people outside those specialist areas (and in some cases, even experimental biologists within the same general niche).
 Grant Jacobs (@BioinfoTools)

The terms computational biology and bioinformatics are often used interchangeably. However, computational biology sometimes connotes the development of algorithms, mathematical models, and methods for statistical inference, while bioinformatics is more associated with the development of software tools, databases, and visualization methods.

But the community is mainly divided:

The below Google trends chart shows a comparison of How often both terms are searched:    

From my point of view a computational biologist is a BIOLOGIST researcher with computer science knowledge that can use this knowledge to generate software tools or new biological knowledge that can be used by people outside those specialist areas.

Bionformaticist is becoming extinct. Bioinformatician or Computational Biologist should be use depending of your environment, the position you are applying for (i.e. if you are applying for a Professor, PI or Group Leader position then is more often to use the term computational biologist boosting your contributions in biology using computational approaches; if you are to a daily working position where different fields of knowledge should be combine for the final results you should use the bioinfroamtician term). Another practical advice is to use the appropriate term considering the preferences of your group and your community. Bioinformatician is not a technical title as it is not statistician, or mathematician. More than 44 twitter users use the bioinformatician title compare with 26 computational biologist. It only boosts the informatics qualifications and skills.

What do you think?