Update (07/28/16): DrugBank/OMx have updated the licensing conditions for DrugBank data in response to concerns raised earlier by various people and groups. See here for a detailed response from Craig Knox
A few days back I came across, via my Twitter network, the news that DrugBank had changed their licensing policy to CC BY-SA-NC 4.0. As such this is not a remarkable change (though one could argue about the NC clause, since as John Overington points out the distinction between commercial and non-commercial usage can be murky). However, on top of this license, the EULA listed a number of more restrictive conditions on reuse of the data. See this thread on ThinkLab for a more detailed discussion and breakdown.
This led to discussion amongst a variety of people regarding the sustainability of data resources. In this case while DrugBank was (and is) funded by federal grants, these are not guaranteed in perpetuity. And thus DrugBank, and indeed any resource, needs to have a plan to sustain itself. Charging for commercial access is one such approach. While it can be problematic for reuse and other Open projects, one cannot fault the developers if they choose a path that enables them to continue to build upon their work.
The British Pharmacological Society (BPS) has committed support for GtoPdb until 2020 and the Wellcome Trust support for GtoImmuPdb until 2018. Needless to say the management team (between, IUPHAR, BPS and the University of Edinburgh) are engaged in sustainability planning beyond those dates. We have also just applied for UK ELIXIR Node consideration.
So it’s nice to see that the resource is completely free of any onerous restrictions until 2020. I have no doubt that the management team will be working hard to secure funding beyond that date. But in case they don’t, will their licensing also change to support some form of commercialization? Certainly, other resources are going down that path. John Overington pointed to BioCyc switching to a subscription model
— John P. Overington (@johnpoverington) May 9, 2016
So the sustainability of data resources is an ongoing problem, and will become a bigger issue as the links between resources grows over time. Economic considerations would suggest that permanent funding of every database cannot happen.
So clearly, some resources will win and some will lose, and the winners will not stay winners forever.
Open source software & transferring leadership
However in contrast to databases, many Open Source software projects do continue development over pretty long time periods. Some of these projects receive public funding and also provide dual licensing options, allowing for income from industrial users.
However there are others which are not heavily funded, yet continue to develop. My favorite example is Jmol which has been in existence for more than 15 years and has remained completely Open Source. One of the key features of this project is that the leadership has passed from one individual to another over the years, starting I think with Dan Gezelter, then Bradley Smith, Egon Willighagen, Miguel Rojas and currently Bob Hanson.
Comparing Open software to Open databases is not fully correct. But this notion of leadership transition is something that could play a useful role in sustaining databases. Thus, if group X cannot raise funding for continued development, maybe group Y (that obviously benefits from the database) that has funding, could take over development and maintenance.
There are obvious reasons that this won’t work – maybe the expertise resides only in group X? I doubt this is really an issue, at least for non-niche databases. One could also argue that this approach is a sort of proto-crowdsourcing approach. While crowdsourcing did come up in the Twitter thread, I’m not convinced this is a scalable approach to sustainability. The “diffuse motivation” of a crowd is quite distinct from the “focused motivation” of a dedicated group. And on top of that, many databases are specialized and the relevant crowd is rather small.
One ultimate solution is that governments host databases in perpetuity. This raises a myriad issues. Does it imply storage and no development? Is this for all publicly funded databases? Or a subset? Who are the chosen ones? And of course, how long will the government pay for it? The NIH Commons, while not being designed for database persistence, is one such prototypical infrastructure that could start addressing these questions.
In conclusion, the issue of database sustainability is problematic and unsolved and the problem is only going to get worse. While unfortunate for Open science (and science in general) the commercialization of databases will always be a possibility. One hopes that in such cases, a balance will be struck between income and free (re)usage of these valuable resources.