Characteristics and evolution of the ecosystem of software tools supporting research in molecular biology

Brief Bioinform. 2019 Jul 19;20(4):1329-1336. doi: 10.1093/bib/bby001.


Daily work in molecular biology presently depends on a large number of computational tools. An in-depth, large-scale study of that 'ecosystem' of Web tools, its characteristics, interconnectivity, patterns of usage/citation, temporal evolution and rate of decay is crucial for understanding the forces that shape it and for informing initiatives aimed at its funding, long-term maintenance and improvement. In particular, the long-term maintenance of these tools is compromised because of their specific development model. Hundreds of published studies become irreproducible de facto, as the software tools used to conduct them become unavailable. In this study, we present a large-scale survey of >5400 publications describing Web servers within the two main bibliographic resources for disseminating new software developments in molecular biology. For all these servers, we studied their citation patterns, the subjects they address, their citation networks and the temporal evolution of these factors. We also analysed how these factors affect the availability of these servers (whether they are alive). Our results show that this ecosystem of tools is highly interconnected and adapts to the 'trendy' subjects in every moment. The servers present characteristic temporal patterns of citation/usage, and there is a worrying rate of server 'death', which is influenced by factors such as the server popularity and the institutions that hosts it. These results can inform initiatives aimed at the long-term maintenance of these resources.

Keywords: Web server; computational method; server decay.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Computational Biology / trends
  • Internet
  • Molecular Biology / statistics & numerical data*
  • Molecular Biology / trends
  • Periodicals as Topic / statistics & numerical data
  • Software* / trends