2nd Sep 2013

The scientists running The Arabidopsis Information Resource (TAIR) have made the decision to ask users to pay to access the database.

The move comes four years after the US National Science Foundation (NSF) said that it would wind down its $1.6 million in annual funding for TAIR, which provides genetic and molecular-biology data on the model plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) to 40,000–60,000 users per month.

Companies will be asked to begin paying for access in October, followed by academics next year, and a new non-profit entity will collect the fees.

NSF has provided initial funding to a group called the International Arabidopsis Informatics Consortium to take on some of TAIR’s functions, but the consortium may not be funded to provide what TAIR investigators say is the resource's most valuable function: human curators who update details on gene function with findings from the published literature. Eva Huala, director of TAIR, which is based in the Department of Plant Biology at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California, says that the NSF is reluctant to pay for this curation or to foot the entire bill for the resource when two-thirds of TAIR's users are based outside the United States.

Lily Whiteman, senior public-relations officer at the NSF, said that the Advances in Biological Informatics program that initially funded TAIR typically funds “development and improvement” of information resources in biology, but not continuing operations or maintenance of these resources.

Plant geneticist Wilhelm Gruissem, one of the founders of Genevestigator, says he could not have supported Genevestigator with payments from the academics who use it. He says that collecting payment from academic customers often requires certain conditions — for instance, there is no alternative, the resource provides strong customer support and the price is low.

“TAIR would need to be massively improved in format and speed to make its customers ready to pay for it,” Gruissem says.

Huala states that TAIR hopes to make improvements as soon as it can find enough money to do so. “We believe that the community understands the difference between a for-profit database that will charge a few well-funded people a high rate for access to a very polished site and a nonprofit project like ours that will continue to keep service to the community and maximum data availability as its highest goal.”

This news article is an adapted extract from Nature news release doi:10.1038/nature.2013.13642