Community annotation — by any name — still isn’t a part of the research process. It should be.

In order for community annotation efforts to succeed, they need to become part of the established research process: mine annotations, generate hypotheses, do experiments, write manuscripts, submit annotations. Rinse and repeat.

A few weeks ago, I posted the following tweet:

Bioinformatics people like to orate about "community annotation". I've never heard a biologist use the phrase. Therein lies the problem.

A few retweeters responded that in their particular realm of bioinformatics, community annotation was called “community curation” or a “jamboree” and they’ve had various degrees of success. Points taken and effort applauded.

The real essence of my tweet was that community annotation — regardless of what it is called — largely fails or is undertaken on a very small scale because it simply isn’t a priority for biologists.

Working at the bench, community annotation doesn’t even make the long list of things to do: conducting experiments, writing manuscripts and grants, mentoring, sitting on committees, teaching. Contributing to community annotation efforts simply does not make the cut.

How might we fix this?

1. Top-down emphasis on the importance of community annotation.

Community annotation isn’t required of publishers or funding agencies except in the most minimal degree (eg submission of sequences). This needs to be changed. By making community annotation part of the process of doing research, the research itself will become more reproducible, more accessible to a broader audience, and more stable over time. It should be complementary to writing a manuscript.

Publishers benefit because extracted entities become markup targets to enhance their online product. Funding agencies benefit since having primary authors and domain experts submit annotation suits the mission of transparency and reproducibility and has a presumed efficiency over third party curation.

2. Better tools.

The tools for community annotation are embryonic and do not match the user experience people have come to expect in the Facebook / Pinterest / Instagram / Google Docs era. Bioinformatics teams need to begin employing user interface, user experience, and graphic design professionals to build friendlier, more efficient, and more beautiful tools to encourage participation.

3. Recognition.

Again, in an effort to encourage participation, we need to recognize the efforts of people who do contribute. This system must have professional currency to it, akin to writing a review paper, and should be citable for two reasons. First, it adds legitimacy to the contribution. It’s now part of the scientific record that can be extended by other researchers. Second, the primary contributor can now make note of their effort expended on CVs and in the tenure or job performance review process.

Nanopublications and microattribution represent the most promising avenues for providing suitable recognition with scientific legitimacy that maps to the current academic and professional status quo.

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