At the recent ICSB meeting I attended a session on Standards and Repositories. This was full of people who actually care about submission standards, curation issues, and very clean and tidy data. Yes, serious geekitude. I loved it.
Some of it covered familiar ground for me. I was involved in microarray experiments in the early days and was very familiar with the MIAME stuff. I know exactly why we have to get the experimental details, meta data about the experiment, and analysis details about a given experiment. I’m on board. And I know that we need the folks who generate the data to give us the correct and full information, or those of us who make our living pulling data back out of databases would be seriously adrift.
But getting people to actually conform to the standards is another issue entirely. Some people just don’t know about the standards. Some don’t have time. Some don’t have tools. Some just don’t have the interest. Some aren’t peer pressured into doing so.
It is great when a community group has come together to create standards and propagate those to their community. But very much like the wiki efforts, this is largely a volunteer thing with little reward and little respect as a use of one’s time. Although everyone wants standards, they can be contentious and undervalued even within a research community.
When granting agencies and publishers put their weight behind adherence to standards, that’s very helpful. But even that often doesn’t come with much financial support, and can be fragmented in application.
But as just an end user it is really hard to know if there are standards, if they are working, and where to go to find out information on them. A new effort is trying to make that a little more transparent: MIBBI.
Susanna-Assunta Sansone (yes, the most lyrical name I heard lately) gave a great talk in this session about standards, the challenges, and an attempt to solve part of this. There is a project called MIBBI, Minimum Information for Biological and Medical Investigation that is a sort of metameta project for standards. MIBBI.org is a group that has been organized to wrangle some of the issues around standards.
As I understand it, the premise is that standards are great and necessary (although often not respected and valued)–but they are often being developed by different research community groups in isolation. While we often need a lot of the same info (species, chemical compounds, meta data, etc) the groups are not talking with each other to coordinate at all. “Harmonizing” checklists would be really terrific. And we also need to accommodate downstream uses of data tha we don’t even know about yet. So we have to capture as much as we can, but that has to be useful for many groups.
MIBBI is trying to be a central resource for standards. They collect them, and generate checklists that investigators, grant agencies, and publishers could use to help everyone know and adhere to the standards.
If you are a bioinformatics geek, you should know about this effort. You should check out the MIBBI site and their recent paper in Nature Biotechnology (freely available on their web site). In that paper I learned about standards groups that I hadn’t heard of before–many beyond MIAME. They also have a great table about the variety of checklists that I found really illuminating into the issues.
I think this is a great idea. As we generate more and more high-volume data in every area of biomedical research we need help to store and sift through it all. I hope it is valued. But will it take off? Will it persist? MIBBI.