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Archive for the ‘open source’ tag

Database Licensing & Sustainability

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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.

Interestingly, the Guide to Pharmacology resource posted a response to the DrugBank license change, in which they don’t comment on the DrugBank decision but do point out that

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


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.

Written by Rajarshi Guha

May 14th, 2016 at 7:26 pm

Software for the “Federation of Independent Scientists”

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A few days back, Derek Lowe posted a comment from a reader who suggested a way to approach the current employment challenges in the pharmaceutical industry would be the formation of a Federation of Independent Scientists. Such a federation would be open to consultants, small companies etc and would use its size to obtain group rates on various things – journal access, health insurance and so on. Obviously, there’s a lot of details left out here and when you go in the nitty gritty a lot of issues arise that don’t have simple answers. Nevertheless, an interesting (and welcome, as evidenced by the comment thread) idea.

One aspect raised by a commenter was access to modeling and docking software by such a group. He mentioned that he’d

… like to see an open source initiative develop a free, open source drug discovery package.Why not, all the underlying force fields and QM models have been published … it would just take a team of dedicated programmers and computational chemists time and passion to create it.

This is the very essence of the Blue Obelisk movement, under whose umbrella there is now a wide variety of computation chemistry and cheminformatics software. There’s certainly no lack of passion in the Open Source chemistry software community. As most of it is based on volunteer effort, time is always an issue. This has a direct effect on the features provided by Open Source chemistry software – such software does not always match up to commercial tools. But as the commenter above pointed out, much of the algorithms underlying proprietrary software is published. It just needs somebody with the time and expertise to implement them. And the combination of these two (in the absence of funding) is not always easy to find.

Of course, having access to the software is just one step. A scientists requires (possibly significant) hardware resources to run the software. Another comment raised this issue and asked about the possibility of a cloud based install of comp chem software.

With regards the sophisticated modelling tools – do they have to be locally installed?

How do the big pharma companies deploy the software now? I would be very suprised if it wasn’t easily packaged, although I guess the number of people using it is limited.

I’m thinking of some kind of virtual server, or remote desktop style operation. Your individual contractor can connect from whereever, and have full access to a range of tools, then transfer their data back to their own location for safekeeping.

Unlike CloudBioLinux, which provides a collection of bioinformatics and structural biology software as a prepackaged AMI for Amazons EC2 platform, I’m not aware of a similarly prepackaged set of Open Source tools for chemistry. And certainly not based on the cloud. (There are some companies that host comp chem software on the cloud and provide access to these installations for a fee). While some Linux distribibutions do package a number of scientific packages (UbuntuScience for example), I don’t think that these would support a computational drug discovery operation. (The above comment does’nt necessarily focus just on Open Source software. One could consider commercial software hosted on remote servers, though I wonder what type of licensing would be involved).

The last component would be the issue of data, primarily for cloud based solutions. While compute cycles on such platforms are usually cheap, bandwidth can be expensive. Granted, chemical data is not as big as biological data (cf. 1000Genomes on AWS), but sending a large collection of conformers over the network may not be very cost-effective. One way to bypass this would be to generate “standard” conformer collections and other such libraries and host them on the cloud. But what is “standard” and who would pay for hosting costs is an open question.

But I do think there is a sufficiently rich ecosystem of Open Source software that could serve much of the computational needs of a “Federation of Independent Scientists”. It’d be interesting to put together a list of Open Source based on requirements from the the commenters in that thread.

Written by Rajarshi Guha

April 14th, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Nice Article on Open Source Cheminformatics

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I met Viven Marx at the BioIT World conference held in Boston earlier this month, in which I spoke on the topic of Open Source cheminformatics. The result of conversations between myself (and Peter Murray Rust) and here were incorporated into an interesting article. (Though the CDK was started at Notre Dame, but is now an internationally developed project).

Written by Rajarshi Guha

May 23rd, 2009 at 4:13 am

Posted in cheminformatics

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Why Academic Cheminformatics is Important

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I’m in academia and I do cheminformatics. Recent collaborations, papers and funding issues in this field have made me think about the future of this research in this setting. This, and a thread discussing David Leahy’s talk on InkSpot Science at the Soton Open Science Workshop got me started on this post.

There are currently a number of groups and collaborations that are attempting to perform drug discovery without the large centralized infrastructure that is characteristic of this process. Examples of this include Jean Claude Bradley who runs the UsefulChem project and the Synaptic Leap as well as various academic labs. Also see Kozikowski et al

Cheminformatics plays a key role in drug discovery efforts at various stages. For example, identifying or prioritizing compounds from virtual libraries, predicting ADME profiles and side effects (e.g., hERG activation) and so on. I should stress that such computational methods don’t replace bench work – but they can certainly enhance it. More generally, we’re now faced with a deluge of data – and human eyeballs are not going to be able to handle this. And this is exactly the place that cheminformatics does it’s stuff.

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Written by Rajarshi Guha

September 1st, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Posted in research

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