Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts tagged Open Science

In an interesting development, Nature Publishing Group has launched a new initiative: Scientific Data – a online-only open access journal that publishes data sets without the demand of testing scientific hypotheses in connection to the data. That is, the data itself is seen as the valuable product, not any findings that might result from it. There is an immediate upside of this; large scientific data sets might be accessible to the research community in a way that enables proper credit for the sample collection effort. Since there is no demand for a full analysis of the data, the data itself might quicker be of use to others, without worrying that someone else might steal the bang of the data per se. I also see a possible downside, though. It would be easy to hold on to the data until you have analyzed it yourself, and then release it separately just about when you submit the paper on the analysis, generating extra papers and citation counts. I don’t know if this is necessarily bad, but it seems it could contribute to “publishing unit dilution”. Nevertheless, I believe that this is overall a good initiative, although how well it actually works will be up to us – the scientific community. Some info copied from the journal website:

Scientific Data’s main article-type is the Data Descriptor: peer-reviewed, scientific publications that provide an in-depth look at research datasets. Data Descriptors are a combination of traditional scientific publication content and structured information curated in-house, and are designed to maximize reuse and enable searching, linking and data mining. (…) Scientific Data aims to address the increasing need to make research data more available, citable, discoverable, interpretable, reusable and reproducible. We understand that wider data-sharing requires credit mechanisms that reward scientists for releasing their data, and peer evaluation mechanisms that account for data quality and ensure alignment with community standards.

It seems like our paper on the recently launched database on resistance genes against antibacterial biocides and metals (BacMet) has gone online as an advance access paper in Nucleic Acids Research today. Chandan Pal – the first author of the paper, and one of my close colleagues as well as my roommate at work – has made a tremendous job taking the database from a list of genes and references, to a full-fledged browsable and searchable database with a really nice interface. I have contributed along the process, and wrote the lion’s share of the code for the BacMet-Scan tool that can be downloaded along with the database files.

BacMet is a curated source of bacterial resistance genes against antibacterial biocides and metals. All gene entries included have at least one experimentally confirmed resistance gene with references in scientific literature. However, we have also made a homology-based prediction of genes that are likely to share the same resistance function (the BacMet predicted dataset). We believe that the BacMet database will make it possible to better understand co- and cross-resistance of biocides and metals to antibiotics within bacterial genomes and in complex microbial communities from different environments.

The database can be easily accessed here: http://bacmet.biomedicine.gu.se, and use of the database in scientific work can cite the following paper, which recently appeared in Nucleic Acids Research:

Pal C, Bengtsson-Palme J, Rensing C, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: BacMet: Antibacterial Biocide and Metal Resistance Genes Database. Nucleic Acids Research. Database issue, advance access. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkt1252 [Paper link]

For a couple of years, I have been working with microbial ecology and diversity, and how such features can be assessed using molecular barcodes, such as the SSU (16S/18S) rRNA sequence (the Metaxa and Megraft packages). However, I have also been aiming at the ITS region, and how that can be used in barcoding (see e.g. the guidelines we published last year). It is therefore a great pleasure to introduce my next gem for community analysis; a software tool for detection and extraction of the ITS1 and ITS2 regions of ITS sequences from environmental communities. The tool is dubbed ITSx, and supersedes the more specific fungal ITS extractor written by Henrik Nilsson and colleagues. Henrik is once more the mastermind behind this completely rewritten version, in which I have done the lion’s share of the programming. Among the new features in ITSx are:

  • Robust support for the Cantharellus, Craterellus, and Tulasnella genera of fungi
  • Support for nineteen additional eukaryotic groups on top of the already present support for fungi (specifically these groups: Tracheophyta (vascular plants), Bryophyta (bryophytes), Marchantiophyta (liverworts), Chlorophyta (green algae), Rhodophyta (red algae), Phaeophyceae (brown algae), Metazoa (metazoans), Oomycota (oomycetes), Alveolata (alveolates), Amoebozoa (amoebozoans), Euglenozoa, Rhizaria, Bacillariophyta (diatoms), Eustigmatophyceae (eustigmatophytes), Raphidophyceae (raphidophytes), Synurophyceae (synurids), Haptophyceae (haptophytes) , Apusozoa, and Parabasalia (parabasalids))
  • Multi-processor support
  • Extensive output options
  • Virtually zero false-positive extractions

ITSx is today moved from a private pre-release state to a public beta state. No code changes has been made since February, indicative of that the last pre-release candidate is now ready to fly on its own. As far as our testing has revealed, this version seems to be bug free. In reality though, researchers tend to find the most unexpected usage scenarios. So please, if you find any unexpected behavior in this version of ITSx, send me an e-mail and make us aware of the potential shortcomings of our software.

We expect this open-source software to boost research in microbial ecology based on barcoding of the ITS region, and hope that the research community will evaluate its performance also among the eukaryote groups that we have less experience with.

Browsing the Pfam web site today, I discovered that the database finally has launched its Wikipedia co-ordination efforts.

This has happened along with the 25th release of the Pfam database (released 1st of April), and basically means that Wikipedia articles will be linked to Pfam families. Gradually, this will (hopefully) improve the annotation of Pfam families, which has in many cases been rather poor. The Xfam blog post related to Pfam release 25 says the change will be happening gradually, which might actually be good thing, given the quirks that might pop up.

(…) a major change is that Pfam annotation is now beginning to be co-ordinated via Wikipedia. Unlike Rfam, where every entry has a Wikipedia entry, we expect this to be a more gradual transition for Pfam, so not all entries currently have a corresponding Wikipedia article. For a more detailed discussion, check the help page.  We actively encourage the addition of new/updated annotations via Wikipedia as they will appear far quicker than waiting for a Pfam release.  If there are articles in Wikipedia that you think correspond to a family, then please mail us!

I have awaited this change for a long time, and is very happy that Pfam has finally taken this step. Congratulations and my sincerest thanks to the Pfam team! Now, let’s go editing!

In December, Alex Bateman, whose opinions on open science I support and have touched upon earlier, wrote a short correspondence letter to Nature [1] in which he again repeated the points of his talk at FEBS last summer. He concludes by the paragraph:

Many in the scientific community will admit to using Wikipedia occasionally, yet few have contributed content. For society’s sake, scientists must overcome their reluctance to embrace this resource.

I agree with this statement. However, as I also touched upon earlier, but like to repeat again – bold statements doesn’t make dreams come true – action does. Rfam, and the collaboration with RNA Biology and Wikipedia is a great example of such actions. So what other actions may be necessary to get researchers to contribute to the Wikipedian wisdom?

First of all, I do not think that the main obstacle to get researchers to edit Wikipedia articles is reluctance to doing so because Wikipedia is “inconsistent with traditional academic scholarship”, though that might be a partial explanation. What I think is the major problem is the time-reward tradeoff. Given the focus on publishing peer-reviewed articles, the race for higher impact factor, and the general tendency of measuring science by statistical measures, it should be no surprise that Wikipedia editing is far down on most scientists to-do lists, so also on mine. The reward of editing a Wikipedia article is a good feeling in your stomach that you have benefitted society. Good stomach feelings will, however, feed my children just as little as freedom of speech. Still, both Wikipedia editing and freedom of speech are extremely important, especially as a scientist.

Thus, there is a great need of a system that:

  • Provides a reward or acknowledgement for Wikipedia editing.
  • Makes Wikipedia editing economically sustainable.
  • Encourages publishing of Wikipedia articles, or contributions to existing ones as part of the scientific publishing process.

Such a system could include a “contribution factor” similar to the impact factor, in which contribution of Wikipedia and other open access forums was weighted, with or without a usefulness measure. Such a usefulness measure could easily be determined by links from other Wikipedia articles, or similar. I realise that there would be severe drawbacks of such a system, similar to those of the impact factor system. I am not a huge fan of impact factors (read e.g. Per Seglen’s 1997 BMJ article [2] for  some reasons why), but I do not see that system changing any time soon, and thus some kind of contribution factor could provide an additional statistical measure for evaluators to consider when examining scientists’ work.

While a contribution factor would be an incitement for  researchers to contribute to the common knowledge, it will still not provide an economic value to do so. This could easily be changed by allowing, and maybe even requiring, scientists to contribute to Wikipedia and other public fora of scientific information as part of their science outreach duties. In fact, this public outreach duty (“tredje uppgiften” in Swedish) is governed in Swedish law. In 2009, the universities in Sweden have been assigned to “collaborate with the society and inform about their operations, and act such that scientific results produced at the university benefits society” (my translation). It seems rational that Wikipedia editing would be part of that duty, as that is the place were many (most?) people find information online today. Consequently, it is only up to the universities to demand 30 minutes of Wikipedia editing per week/month from their employees. Note here that I am referring to paid editing.

Another way of increasing the economic appeal of writing Wikipedia articles would be to encourage funding agencies and foundations to demand Wikipedia articles or similar as part of project reports. This would require researchers to make their findings public in order to get further funding, a move that would greatly increase the importance of increasing the common wisdom treasure. However, I suspect that many funding agencies, as well as researchers would be reluctant to such a solution.

Lastly, as shown by the Rfam/RNA Biology/Wikipedia relationship, scientific publishing itself could be tied to Wikipedia editing. This process could be started by e.g. open access journals such as PLoS ONE, either by demanding short Wikipedia notes to get an article published, or by simply provide prioritised publishing of articles which also have an accompanying Wiki-article. As mentioned previously, these short Wikipedia notes would also go through a peer-review process along with the full article. By tying this to the contribution factor, further incitements could be provided to get scientific progress in the hands of the general public.

Now, all these ideas put a huge burden on already hard-working scientists. I realise that they cannot all be introduced simultaneously. Opening up publishing requires time and thought, and should be done in small steps. But doing so is in the interest of scientists, the general public and the funders, as well as politicians. Because in the long run it will be hard to argue that society should pay for science when scientists are reluctant to even provide the public with an understandable version of the results. Instead of digging such a hole for ourselves, we should adapt the reward, evaluation, funding and publishing systems in a way that they benefit both researchers and the society we often say we serve.

  1. Bateman and Logan. Time to underpin Wikipedia wisdom. Nature (2010) vol. 468 (7325) pp. 765
  2. Seglen. Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ (1997) vol. 314 (7079) pp. 498-502

Nature recently had a nice news article on Bio-wikis and biological databases connected to Wikipedia where Alex Bateman says they’re working on a protein-family wiki that will be hosted on Wikipedia, similar to the Rfam wiki, which he talked about at FEBS this summer. I am of course very excited about this, and hope that the new Pfam (?) wiki will come rather sooner than later. As pointed out earlier, the Nature article also underlines the problem of scientific wikis; currently there is no career incentive to get researchers to spend their time editing wiki-articles. That is a shame, and perhaps a system copying the system of Rfam and RNA Biology could help in this direction. The only question is which journal(s) that would be interested in such a commitment to open science…

There’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment, and I will not be able to make it to this event myself, but I encourage everyone interested in the future of science that is able to to go there. It is important, interesting, and not expensive. Copy/paste from the website:

Join us at the first Open Science Summit, an attempt to gather all stakeholders who want to liberate our scientific and technological commons to enable an new era of decentralized, distributed innovation to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. (…) The Open Science Summit is the first and only event to consider what happens throughout the entire innovation chain as reform in one area influences the prospects in others.

Tickets are available until Wednesday (the 28th), and the event runs from July 29 to 31 at the International House Berkeley, CA. Please be there for me and represent a movement towards increased openness in science. See this previous post by me for my opinion on things.

Useful links: