Recombinant Research: Breaking open rewards and incentives

Can open data dominate biological science as open source has in software?

In the previous articles in this series I’ve looked at problems in current medical research, and at the legal and technical solutions proposed by Sage Bionetworks. Pilot projects have shown encouraging results but to move from a hothouse environment of experimentation to the mainstream of one of the world’s most lucrative and tradition-bound industries, Sage Bionetworks must aim for its nucleus: rewards and incentives.

Previous article in the series: Sage Congress plans for patient engagement.

Think about the publication system, that wretchedly inadequate medium for transferring information about experiments. Getting the data on which a study was based is incredibly hard; getting the actual samples or access to patients is usually impossible. Just as boiling vegetables drains most of their nutrients into the water, publishing results of an experiment throws away what is most valuable.

But the publication system has been built into the foundation of employment and funding over the centuries. A massive industry provides distribution of published results to libraries and research institutions around the world, and maintains iron control over access to that network through peer review and editorial discretion. Even more important, funding grants require publication (but the data behind the study only very recently). And of course, advancement in one’s field requires publication.

Lawrence Lessig, in his keynote, castigated for-profit journals for restricting access to knowledge in order to puff up profits. A chart in his talk showed skyrocketing prices for for-profit journals in comparison to non-profit journals. Lessig is not out on the radical fringe in this regard; Harvard Library is calling the current pricing situation “untenable” in a move toward open access echoed by many in academia.

Lawrence Lessig keynote at Sage Congress
Lawrence Lessig keynote at Sage Congress.

How do we open up this system that seemed to serve science so well for so long, but is now becoming a drag on it? One approach is to expand the notion of publication. This is what Sage Bionetworks is doing with Science Translational Medicine in publishing validated biological models, as mentioned in an earlier article. An even more extensive reset of the publication model is found in Open Network Biology (ONB), an online journal. The publishers require that an article be accompanied by the biological model, the data and code used to produce the model, a description of the algorithm, and a platform to aid in reproducing results.

But neither of these worthy projects changes the external conditions that prop up the current publication system.

When one tries to design a reward system that gives deserved credit to other things besides the final results of an experiment, as some participants did at Sage Congress, great unknowns loom up. Is normalizing and cleaning data an activity worth praise and recognition? How about combining data sets from many different projects, as a Synapse researcher did for the TCGA? How much credit do you assign researchers at each step of the necessary procedure for a successful experiment?

Let’s turn to the case of free software to look at an example of success in open sharing. It’s clear that free software has swept the computer world. Most web sites use free software ranging from the server on which they run to the language compilers that deliver their code. Everybody knows that the most popular mobile platform, Android, is based on Linux, although fewer realize that the next most popular mobile platforms, Apple’s iPhones and iPads, run on a modified version of the open BSD operating system. We could go on and on citing ways in which free and open source software have changed the field.

The mechanism by which free and open source software staked out its dominance in so many areas has not been authoritatively established, but I think many programmers agree on a few key points:

  • Computer professionals encountered free software early in their careers, particularly as students or tinkerers, and brought their predilection for it into jobs they took at stodgier institutions such as banks and government agencies. Their managers deferred to them on choices for programming tools, and the rest is history.

  • Of course, computer professionals would not have chosen the free tools had they not been fit for the job (and often best for the job). Why is free software so good? Probably because the people creating it have complete jurisdiction over what to produce and how much time to spend producing it, unlike in commercial ventures with requirements established through marketing surveys and deadlines set unreasonably by management.

  • Different pieces of free software are easy to hook up, because one can alter their interfaces as necessary. Free software developers tend to look for other tools and platforms that could work with their own, and provide hooks into them (Apache, free database engines such as MySQL, and other such platforms are often accommodated.) Customers of proprietary software, in contrast, experience constant frustration when they try to introduce a new component or change components, because the software vendors are hostile to outside code (except when they are eager to fill a niche left by a competitor with market dominance). Formal standards cannot overcome vendor recalcitrance–a painful truth particularly obvious in health care with quasi-standards such as HL7.

  • Free software scales. Programmers work on it tirelessly until it’s as efficient as it needs to be, and when one solution just can’t scale any more, programmers can create new components such as Cassandra, CouchDB, or Redis that meet new needs.

Are there lessons we can take from this success story? Biological research doesn’t fit the circumstances that made open source software a success. For instance, researchers start out low on the totem pole in very proprietary-minded institutions, and don’t get to choose new ways of working. But the cleverer ones are beginning to break out and try more collaboration. Software and Internet connections help.

Researchers tend to choose formats and procedures on an ad hoc, project by project basis. They haven’t paid enough attention to making their procedures and data sets work with those produced by other teams. This has got to change, and Sage Bionetworks is working hard on it.

Research is labor-intensive. It needs desperately to scale, as I have pointed out throughout this article, but to do so it needs entire new paradigms for thinking about biological models, workflow, and teamwork. This too is part of Sage Bionetworks’ mission.

Certain problems are particularly resistant in research:

  • Conditions that affect small populations have trouble raising funds for research. The Sage Congress initiatives can lower research costs by pooling data from the affected population and helping researchers work more closely with patients.

  • Computation and statistical methods are very difficult fields, and biological research is competing with every other industry for the rare individuals who know these well. All we can do is bolster educational programs for both computer scientists and biologists to get more of these people.

  • There’s a long lag time before one knows the effects of treatments. As Heywood’s keynote suggested, this is partly solved by collecting longitudinal data on many patients and letting them talk among themselves.

Another process change has revolutionized the computer field: agile programming. That paradigm stresses close collaboration with the end-users whom the software is supposed to benefit, and a willingness to throw out old models and experiment. BRIDGE and other patient initiatives hold out the hope of a similar shift in medical research.

All these things are needed to rescue the study of genetics. It’s a lot to do all at once. Progress on some fronts were more apparent than others at this year’s Sage Congress. But as more people get drawn in, and sometimes fumbling experiments produce maps for changing direction, we may start to see real outcomes from the efforts in upcoming years.

All articles in this series, and others I’ve written about Sage Congress, are available through a bit.ly bundle.

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