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FEEDBACK: Industry Insiders Speak Out on Celera-Science Deal

NEW YORK, Dec 15 – What a week it’s been.

Over the past seven days the scientific community has been digesting the surprising news that Science agreed to bend its rules in order to publish Celera’s paper on the sequenced human genome.

Some researchers said the compromise represented a sell-out on Science’s part. Others applauded the deal, saying it was the best possible outcome given the difficult circumstances.

Below, we’ve included a handful of comments GenomeWeb collected from members of the public and private sectors. If you’ve got anything to add, please send your comments to [email protected] .

Steven Salzberg, Director of Bioinformatics, The Institute for Genomic Research :  

I don’t think [the deal with Celera] compromises Science’s integrity in the slightest. Celera paid for the sequencing with its own money, saving us huge amounts of time and money. Now we have access to it and much sooner than we would have otherwise. My understanding is that we can’t turn around and sell it, but that’s not what I’m in the game for.

On whether the data should be put in GenBank: Genbank is the biggest database, but it’s not the only one…It’s kind of the 800-pound gorilla in genomics…Scientists already go to multiple sources for data. It’s not a big deal to click on another bookmark. Everyone goes to multiple sites for sequence and analysis.

We should continue to explore how for-profit companies can provide scientific data without endangering the existence of the company.

Michael Ashburner, Professor of Biology, Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, and Joint-Head, European Bioinformatics Institute:

[ Science’s ] instructions to authors talk about the appropriate database. For [Kennedy] to argue that in respect to the nucleic acid sequence data, GenBank is not the appropriate database is splitting the finest of hairs. If he thinks we’re that stupid, then he should be more specific.

I don’t care about the terms [of accessing the data from Celera’s website]. Those data are either in GenBank, and therefore in the public domain, and therefore Celera does what everyone else has been doing in this field, or they are not. And it’s as simple as that. If they’re not, there is some restriction on the use of the data and we have now seen the beginning of the fragmentation of the database. To me it’s black and white.

The only intellectually honest position would be to not publish the paper. If it came to me, I would simply chuck it in the bin without even opening the FedEx package.

If I sequenced the genome tomorrow and wanted to publish it under much the same terms that Celera has and Science said no, they would not have a leg to stand on. And I would then say is it that my company hasn’t made donations to AAAS? A reasonable person on even a mildly cynical day could come to the conclusion that there could be a conflict of interest.


Before we all settle into a common, facile dismissal of the great Celera- Science sellout, we ought to take a moment to thank the one guy most responsible for the fact that this brouhaha is even taking place now, instead of in 2005: Craig Venter.

It was Craig's decision to unilaterally sequence the genome that jolted the public effort into actually releasing the genome in an accelerated manner, without years wasted in self-congratulation, sequence hoarding, and internal cherry-picking. Getting the human genome into the public domain has been achieved   largely through HGP’s reaction to Celera's initiative.

The real problem isn't that the Celera/ Science coupling appears incomprehensibly venal. The real problem is that there's only one human genome, and at least a half-dozen guys who already think they deserve the podium walk in Stockholm. This is probably why Celera only needs one paper, while the public effort has already committed to 11: apparently the minimum number of first authors required to keep the public effort from dissolving in its own morass of fractious tomfoolery. It's also a problem that there is more than one journal of record in research that wants the genome all to itself.

The appearance of greed, of vast egos colliding in a virtual smackdown of science is doing our common pursuit serious harm. Genomics has a PR problem already. Public distrust of genomics is ubiquitous, and frankly we're all tired of narcissism-driven, winner-take-all, " cheat every way you can" death struggles. And though we may have no choice but to have an American president, we are not obligated in any way to either have or accept a Supreme Leader of the Genome.

So, on the one hand we have my hero, who has apparently finished the job but won't let us peek, and the glorious Heroes of a Free Genome, who are publishing a dozen not- Science papers, but who haven't finished anything. Here's some advice to both. First of all, to Craig, if you want to be a scientist, follow the rules. Rule no. 1: your data is community property. Or feel free to keep it to yourself and the few Big-Pharma juggernauts that can afford you, and let me
be one of the first to take a few billion out of your market cap through judicious use of the public genome data. 

And to the public crowd: let he who is without sin cast the first stone. You don't yet have all that much to be proud of, or self-righteous about, and in the meantime, I suggest that you finish your job.

Alfredo Lopez De Leon, Department of Plant Pathology, University of California, Davis:

With regard to the Science -Celera agreement I believe   that it is a very fair agreement and a win-win situation for the   public and Celera's shareholders. We cannot apply the same old standards that were developed to handle single gene submissions to whole - genome sequencing projects. Besides, when these standards were developed nobody imagined at that time that there would be private companies involved in this kind of science, let alone that they would be the leaders. We are at the dawn of the 21st century; it is time to develop new ways to access and publish information.

Sean Eddy, Alvin Goldfarb Professor of Computational Biology, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Washington University in St. Louis:

I think what Celera is doing is pretty liberal. They risk their entire business model by going public with this information…. I am hoping Celera decides to revert to their original business model, which was to release the primary sequence data freely but keep their annotation as a proprietary database.

Heather Kowalski, Spokeswoman for Celera Genomics:

There is no change here because we have always said that it's not just about the data – hence the numerous references/analogies to Lexis-Nexis and Bloomberg – it is about the proprietary tools and software to mine the data. This is what subscribers pay for as well as expert, in-depth annotation. There will be some annotation for the publication but it is mainly computer-generated annotation. As well this publication/online site will be a fixed period in time. We will continue to annotate the data, which will continue to be a benefit of subscribing. So Sean Eddy should be happy. This is not a new business model. This is what we have said since day one of Celera's existence.

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