Bioinformatics business model

So, I’m supposed to be writing my speech for my brothers wedding which is a week today (EDIT: which went very well, thanks for asking ;-), mazel tov James and Morgan), but I thought it would help me get in the zone to write a quick blog post. Hopefully I will remember not to put anything about bioinformatics in the speech!

A few days ago, I had an interaction with a bioinformatics software developer that got me thinking. I was keen to use a tool they had developed (which is ‘free for academics’, sigh), but I needed it (‘it’ is a perl script) to take a slightly different data format. I emailed to see if they were interested in collaborating to get this working, as it might be relevant for more people and be a boon for their tool.

They sounded keen, but then dropped a bit of a bombshell – they wanted hundreds of pounds to do the work! Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with people getting paid for their hard work, and really what I would be paying for is the tool itself which took a long time to develop, rather than the new data format, which I’m guessing would not take very long. However, since the tool is already ‘free for academics’, with a small amount of work I could probably get the perl script to accept my data format without their help. Btw, this ‘free for academics thing’ is a bit of a bugbear for me, because people usually think that if you are a non-academic scientist you are in industry, forgetting about the thousands of scientists who work for the Government.

However, the real problem for the developers (with whom I have a certain amount of sympathy) is that even if I was inclined to pay them, it would be such a hassle getting such a payment through the various administrative hoops at work, that they would be waiting a long time for their money! If it was even possible!

Since most bioinformatics is open source (which usually means paid for by universities/research councils, which usually means paid for by taxpayers), there is not a strong precedent for paying significant sums of money for very niche software. Therefore I think these guys are going to be fighting an uphill battle. Perhaps a better model would be something along the kickstarter approach, I probably couldn’t get my work to pay hundreds of pounds, but I would personally be willing to pay £10-£20 to save myself the hassle of slogging through their perl code, and maybe some other people would be as well…


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