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ISCB President Says Society Goofed on Bioinformatics Software Availability Statement

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Phil Bourne, president of the International Society of Computational Biologists, said last week that the society’s board made “a mistake” in issuing a position statement on software availability without soliciting feedback from the general ISCB membership.

“We’re evolving and learning,” said Bourne, “and when you’re learning sometimes you make mistakes.” Bourne added that the ISCB “will work hard to make sure the membership is included in future statements.”

Bourne’s comments were in response to ISCB members who openly criticized the statement for failing to reflect the views of the broader ISCB membership. At the society’s business meeting on August 6 during ISMB in Edmonton, several attendees voiced concerns that the recommendation, which the board released in June [BioInform 6-03-02], was issued without a poll, vote, or comment period for the nearly 1,600 society members.

The statement, which was summarized in an ISCB newsletter distributed to all ISMB attendees last week, recommends a five-level structure identifying a range of licensing, pricing, and redistribution possibilities for bioinformatics software. Level 0 software, for example, is available in binary form free of charge for educational and non-profit research groups and for a possible fee to commercial institutions without the right to further redistribute the software. At the other end of the scale, Level 4 provides the software free of charge to all institutions and individuals with source code and unlimited redistribution rights.

The ISCB recommendation notes that “the term ‘open source’ has taken on many different meanings” and “creates confusion in discussions of software availability” — an assessment of the topic that runs the risk of confusing the issue even further, according to some ISMB attendees. Winston Hide, of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute and an ISCB board member, said the final statement showed “a lack of in-depth understanding around issues involving open source” and that he voted against its adoption.

“The regrettable aspect is that [the statement] really does confuse an issue that had been worked out over quite a few years, which is what open source is,” said Lincoln Stein of Cold Spring Harbor Lab. The recommendation “ignores all the work that’s been done on making legal definitions for open source and valid open source licenses, which are fully spelled out at opensource.org,” said Stein, who is not an ISCB member, but added that “I will be now that they’ve annoyed me.”

Steven Brenner of the University of California, Berkeley, and a founding board member of the Open Bioinformatics Foundation, noted that while the OBF agrees with the ISCB’s position that funding agencies should not require open source distribution, the statement falls short because “it implies that the lowest level is generally acceptable” — a level of availability “not suitable from the standpoint of good scientific practice.” Brenner, a former ISCB board member, was re-elected to the board last week.

Bourne said that there would be “a response” to the issues raised by ISCB members. The statement is posted at www.iscb.org/pr.shtml#software and the society is hosting a discussion on the topic at www.iscb.org/ members-corner.shtml.

— BT

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