March 3, 2017

KEGG is no longer free

April saw the well-respected KEGG project in Japan start moving away from its open-source/free-software roots and change to a user-pays system, even for academic users (except for a small portion which will remain free). This is a disappointing move but reading the plea from the KEGG authors explaining the rationale behind the move you cannot help but understand and empathise with why they've made their decision.

KEGG was run from the lab of a single senior researcher, Minoru Kanehisa, who is now approaching retirement. As such he is finding it hard to obtain further grants to continue his work. Rather than let KEGG disappear upon his retirement he set up a non-profit organisation (NPO Bioinformatics Japan) to take ownership of the KEGG IP and to apply for grants to continue its maintenance after his retirement. Unfortunately, such grants have not been forthcoming and to maintain sufficient income to pay for the staff to run KEGG within the new organisation they have had no choice but to make it into a paid product. Those parts which have been successful in winning grant funding will continue to be free, but only for as long as grants can continue to be won.

This illustrates a key problem with the open-source bioinformatics model when projects are tied to specific individual academics rather than being truly community-based (e.g. like BioPerl). When those individuals leave or move on, their projects either have to be transferred to other researchers, spun out commercially, or simply closed down. A community-based effort is the only way to ensure continuity of a project without being tied to the tenure or grant winning success of an academic.

It also illustrates the other problem in open-source bioinformatics in that the grant funding model is focused on innovation instead of maintenance. What happens when an existing resource matures because it is so well done that not much more can be done to innovate within it? At this stage the grants are no longer available (except for some special cases from bodies with a bit more foresight than average) and projects just shrivel up and die (unless they can be sold off commercially or turned into a non-free resource).

Is there a community of volunteers out there willing to take on KEGG and maintain it and deliver it for free? Who knows - only time will tell - but it would be a real shame to see such a valuable resource lost simply because the project leader is having to retire.

Topics: Bioinformatics, Bioinformatics, kegg