Can We Keep Important Scientific Research Projects Alive Through Revenue Generated From API Access?

I am spending an increasing amount of time thinking about how you monetize data, content, and other digital resources via APIs. A couple of very compelling layers to all of this work, is pushing forward my thoughts on how and when government should charge for access to public data, as well as the how and when private sector companies should charge for access to public data--lots to think about here.

Another layer to this conversation that was introduced this week, centers around how we can keep data and content generated via publicly funded research, at publicly funded institutions, available, accessible, and moving forward, by applying the technology and business of the modern web API. I was contacted this week by a group at Caltech, that is proposing a research to database hyperlinking project, which would provide one-click access from published biomedical research papers to authoritative biological databases such as WormBase (WB;, Flybase (FB;, the Saccharomyces Genome, and Database (SGD;

The primary objective of the project is to make information around scientific research, and the resources you need to accomplish the research, more accessible at the time of research--not after the fact. The secondary objective is to identify monetization opportunities within the industry for the data, and apply modern API methodologies, to take advantage of these opportunities. In short, we are looking to build a viable business model on top of this highly valuable scientific data, to help keep these databases accessible, evolving, and living. 

This is where the API monetization discussions I've had in the past around generating revenue around public data, come into play, but this time it is with publicly funded scientific research. It takes money to keep these databases up and running. It takes money to design, deploy, and manage APIs, and operate the API ecosystem that will arise around these databases. Where is the ethical line between providing access to this important data, and generating enough revenue to keep the important work alive?

I am most definitely biased, but this is where APIs really begin to shine for me. It isn't just that we have the technology to open up access to these databases, in a simple way that can be used in websites, web applications, browser add-ons, and mobile apps. We also have the ability to meter access, giving free access to those who need it, while charging for access from those who can afford it, in order to fund operations. The third aspect of a modern approach to APIs that makes this possible, is the transparency. We can strike this operational balance around monetizing this public data, in a transparent way, so ethical concerns can be minimized.

This represents the technology, business, and politics of APIs that you here me ranting about on a regular basis. I am not saying this formula will work for all scientific research, but I think if we can strike the right balance, we can uncover another revenue stream to keep important scientific research moving forward. I am just beginning these conversations, and in my own style, I'm working through my thoughts here on the blog. I would love to hear your thoughts, if you have any opinions in these areas.

Stay tuned for more as this project evolves...