Where Do Bioinformaticians Host Their Code?

Awhile back I was piqued by a discussion on BioStar about “Where would you host your open source code repository today?“, which got me thinking about the relative merits of the different sites for hosting bioinformatics software.  I am not an evangelist for any particular version control system or hosting site, and I leave it to readers to have a look into these systems themselves or at the BioStar thread for more on the relative merits of major hosting services, such as Sourceforge, Google Code, github and bitbucket. My aim here is not to advocate any particular system (although as a lab head I have certain predilections*), but to answer the straightforward empirical question: where do bioinformaticians host their code?

To do this, I’ve queried PubMed for keywords in the URLs of the four major hosting services listed above to get estimates of their uptake in biomedical publications.  This simple analysis clearly has some caveats, including the fact that many publications link to hosting services in sections of the paper outside the abstract, and that many bioinformaticians (frustratingly) release code via insitutional or personal webpages. Furthermore, the various hosting services arose at different times in history, so it is also important to interpret these data in a temporal context.  These (and other caveats) aside, the following provides an overview of how the bioinformatics community votes with their feet in terms of hosting their code on the major repository systems…

First of all, the bad news: of the many thousands of articles published in the field of bioinformatics, as of July Dec 31 2012 just under 700 papers (n=676) have easily discoverable code linked to a major repository in their abstract. The totals for each repository system are: 446 Sourceforge, 152 on Google Code, 78 on github and only 5 on bitbucket. So, by far, the majority of authors have chosen not to host their code on a major repository. But for the minority of authors who have chosen to release their code via a stable repository system, most use Sourceforge (which was is the oldest and most established source code repository) and effectively nobody is using bitbucket.

The first paper to link published code to a major repository system was only a decade ago in 2002, and a breakdown of the growth in code hosting since then looks like this:

 Year Sourceforge Google github
2002 4 0 0
2003 3 0 0
2004 10 0 0
2005 21 1 0
2006 24 0 0
2007 30 1 0
2008 30 10 0
2009 48 10 0
2010 69 21 8
2011 94 46 18
2012 113 63 52
Total 446 152 78

Trends in bioinformatics code repository usage 2002-2012.

A few things are clear from these results: 1) there is an upward trend in biomedical researchers hosting their code on major repository sites (the apparent downturn in 2012 is because data for this year is incomplete), 2) Sourceforge has clearly been the dominant players in the biomedical code repository game to date, but 3) the current growth rate of github appears to be outstripping both Sourceforge and Google Code. Furthermore, it appears that github is not experiencing any lag in uptake, as was observed in the 2002-2004 period for Sourceforge and 2006-2009 period for Google Code. It is good to see that new players in the hosting market are being accepted at a quicker rate than they were a decade ago.

Hopefully the upward trend for bioinformaticians to release their code via a major code hosting service will continue (keep up the good work, brothers and sisters!), and this will ultimately create a snowball effect such that it is no longer acceptable to publish bioinformatics software without releasing it openly into the wild.


  • As a lab manager I prefer to use Sourceforge in our published work, since Sourceforge has a very draconian policy when it come to deleting projects, which prevents accidental or willful deletion of a repository. In my opinion, Google Code and (especially) github are too permissive in terms of allowing projects to be deleted. As a lab head, I see it is my duty to ensure the long-term preservation of published code above all other considerations. I am aware that there are mechanisms to protect against deletion of repositories on github and Google Code, but I would suspect that most lab heads do not utilize them and that a substantial fraction of published academic code is one click away from deletion.

Will the Democratization of Sequencing Undermine Openness in Genomics?

It is no secret, nor is it an accident, that the success of genome biology over the last two decades owes itself in large part to the Open Science ideals and practices that underpinned the Human Genome Project. From the development of the Bermuda principles in 1996 to the Ft. Lauderdale agreement in 2003, leaders in the genomics community fought for rapid, pre-publication data release policies that have (for the most part) protected the interests of genome sequencing centers and the research community alike.

As a consequence, progress in genomic data acquisition and analysis has been incredibly fast, leading to major basic and medical breakthroughs, thousands of publications, and ultimately to new technologies that now permit extremely high-throughput DNA sequencing. These new sequencing technologies now give individual groups sequencing capabilities that were previously only acheivable by large sequencing centers. This development makes it timely to ask: how do the data release policies for primary genome sequences apply in the era of next-generation sequencing (NGS)?

My reading of the the history of genome sequence release policies condenses the key issues as follows:

  • The Bermuda Principles say that assemblies of primary genomic sequences of human and other organims should be made within 24 hrs of their production
  • The Ft. Lauderdale Agreement says that whole genome shotgun reads should be deposited in public repositories within one week of generation. (This agreement was also encouraged to be applied to other types of data from “community resource projects” – defined as research project specifically devised and implemented to create a set of data, reagents or other material whose primary utility will be as a resource for the broad scientific community.)

Thus, the agreed standard in the genomics field is that raw sequence data from the primary genomic sequence of organisms should be made available within a week of generation. In my view this also applies to so-called “resequencing” efforts (like the 1000 Genomes Project), since genomic data from a new strain or individual is actually a new primary genome sequence.

The key question concerning genomic data release policies in the NGS era, then, is do these data release policies apply only to sequencing centers or to any group producing primary genomic data? Now that you are a sequencing center, are you also bound by the obligations that sequencing centers have followed for a decade or more? This is an important issue to discuss for it’s own sake in order to promote Open Science, but also for the conundrums it throws up about data release policies in genomics. For example, if individual groups who are sequencing genomes are not bound by the same data release policies as sequencing centers, then a group at e.g. Sanger or Baylor working on a genome is actually now put at a competetive disadvantage in the NGS era because they would be forced to release their data.

I argue that if the wider research community does not abide by the current practices of early data release in genomics, the democratization of sequencing will lead to the slow death of openness in genomics. We could very well see a regression to the mean behavior of data hording (I sometimes call this “data mine, mine, mining”) that is sadly characteristic of most of biological sciences. In turn this could decelerate progress in genomics, leading to a backlog of terabytes of un(der)analyzed data rotting on disks around the world. Are you prepared to standby, do nothing and bear witness to this bleak future? ; )

While many individual groups collecting primary genomic sequence data may hesitate to embrace the idea of pre-publication data release, it should be noted that there is also a standard procedure in place for protecting the interests of the data producer to have first chance to publish (or co-publish) large-scale analysis of the data, while permitting the wider research community to have early access. The Ft. Lauderdale agreeement recognized that:

…very early data release model could potentially jeopardize the standard scientific practice that the investigators who generate primary data should have both the right and responsibility to publish the work in a peer-reviewed journal. Therefore, NHGRI agreed to the inclusion of a statement on the sequence trace data permitting the scientific community to use these unpublished data for all purposes, with the sole exception of publication of the results of a complete genome sequence assembly or other large-scale analyses in advance of the sequence producer’s initial publication.

This type of data producer protection proviso has being taken up by some community-led efforts to release large amounts of primary sequence data prior to publiction, as laudably done by the Drosophila Population Genomics Project (Thanks Chuck!)

While the Ft. Lauderdale agreement in principle tries to balance the interests of the data producers and consumers, it is not without failings. As Mike Eisen points out on his blog:

In practice [the Ft. Lauderdale privoso] has also given data producers the power to create enormous consortia to analyze data they produce, effectively giving them disproportionate credit for the work of large communities. It’s a horrible policy that has significantly squelched the development of a robust genome analysis community that is independent of the big sequencing centers.

Eisen rejects the Ft. Lauderdale agreement in favor of a new policy he entitles The Batavia Open Genomic Data Licence.  The Batavia License does not require an embargo period or the need to inform data producers of how they intend to use the data, as is expected under the Ft. Lauderdale agreement, but it requires that groups using the data publish in an open access journal. Therefore the Batavia License is not truly open either, and I fear that it imposes unnecessary restrictions that will prevent its widespread uptake. The only truly Open Science policy for data release is a Creative Commons (CC-BY or CC-Zero) style license that has no restrictions other than attribution, a precedent that was established last year for the E. coli TY-2482 genome sequence (BGI you rock!).

A CC-style license will likely be too liberal for most labs generating their own data, and thus I argue we may be better off pushing for a individual groups to use a Ft. Lauderdale style agreement to encourage the (admittedly less than optimal) status quo to be taken up by the wider community. Another option is for researchers to release their data early via “data publications” such as those being developed by journals such as GigaScience and F1000 Reports.

Whatever the mechanism, I join with Eisen in calling for wider participation for the research to community to release their primary genomic sequence data. Indeed, it would be a truly sad twist of fate if the wider research community does not follow the genomic data release policies in the post-NGS era that were put in place in the pre-NGS era in order to protect their interests. I for one will do my best in the coming years to reciprocate the generosity that has made Drosophila genomics community so great (in the long tradition of openness dating back to the Morgan school), by releasing any primary sequence data produced by my lab prior to publication. Watch this space.

Nominations for the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences

Earlier this week I recieved an email with the annual call for nominations for the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences. While I am in general not that fussed about the importance of acadamic accolades, I think this a great award since it recognizes contributions in a sub-discipne of biology — computational biology, or bioinformatics — that are specifically done in the spririt of open innovation. By placing the emphasis on recognizing openness as an achievement, the Franklin Award goes beyond other related honors (such as those awarded by the International Society for Computational Biology) and, in my view, captures the essence of the true spirit of what scientists should be striving for in their work.

In looking over the past recipients, few would argue that the award has not been given out to major contributors to the open source/open access movements in biology. In thinking about who might be appropriate to add to this list, two people sprang to mind who I’ve had the good fortune to work with in the past, both of whom have made a major impresion on my (and many others’) thinking and working practices in computational biology.  So without further ado, here are my nominations for the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Access in the Life Sciences (in chronological order of my interaction with them)…

Suzanna Lewis

Suzanna Lewis (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) is one of the pioneers of developing open standards and software for genome annotation and ontologies. She led the team repsonsible for the systematic annotation of the Drosophila melanogaster genome, which included development of the Gadfly annotation pipeline and database framework, and the annotation curation/visualization tool Apollo. Lewis’ work in genome annotation also includes playing instrumental roles in the GASP community assessement exercises to evaluate the state of the art in genome annotation, development of the Gbrowser genome browser, and the data coordination center for modENCODE project. In addition to her work in genome annotation, Lewis has been a leader in the development of open biological ontologies (OBO, NCBO), contributing to the Gene Ontology, Sequence Ontology, and Uberon anatomy ontologies, and developing open software for editing and navigating ontologies (AmiGO, OBO-Edit, and Phenote).

Carole Goble

Carole Goble (University of Manchester) is widely recognized as a visionary in the development of software to support automated workflows in biology. She has been a leader of the myGrid and Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute consortia, which have generated a large number of highly innovative open resources for e-research in the life sciences including the Taverna Workbench for developing and deploying workflows, the BioCatalogue registry of bioinformatics web services, and the social-networking inspired myExperiment workflow repository. Goble has also played an instrumental role in the development of semantic-web tools for constructing and analyzing life science ontologies, the development of ontologies for describing bioinformatics resources, as well as ontology-based tools such as RightField for managing life science data.

I hope others join me in acknowledging the outputs of these two open innovators as being more than worthy of the Franklin Award, support their nomination, and cast votes in their favor this year and/or in years to come!