With the enormous increase of processing power in mobile phones, the attempts by mobile gamers to extend the length of a line of black pixels to triumph in the game of Snake are now a quaint memory, “Some mobile phones are now almost as powerful as computers,” says Samuel Gan from the A*STAR Bioinformatics Institute (BII). “With apps like Dropbox, and Microsoft office, the phone has become a portable office.”
For scientists, smartphones hold potential for a pocket laboratory. And who better to develop these convenient and time-saving tools than scientists themselves? But these budding developers have been discouraged by a lack of scientific journals in which to publish the fruits of their labor. Familiar with the problem, Gan has led the way for a new open-access journal, launched by A*STAR and Springer in October 2015, to give scientist developers the academic recognition they deserve.
Gan first became interested in using the mobile platform for scientific analysis in late 2013. He was frustrated at being unable to analyze sequencing data while on a business trip far from his laboratory in Singapore. To overcome this, he and his staff, Nguyen Phi Vu created a new mobile phone app where scientists can view and analyze DNA sequencing files, called DNAApp. Although the app was downloaded by scientists from all over the world and caught the attention of more than 80 news agencies, it received a lukewarm reception from many in the academic community. Publishing the work was a difficult process. Some reviewers loved the idea but others did not regard it as a real area of research. “There was a polarization among scientists over the idea of publishing a mobile phone app in a scientific journal,” Gan recalls. His team eventually succeeded in publishing their results, but then faced similar difficulties in trying to get subsequent apps, such as GelApp, which measures the size of gel electrophoresis bands, published.
The user feedback on DNAApp and GelApp, however, was overwhelmingly positive. “There’s nothing more exciting than for a scientist to know that what they’re developing is being used,” says Gan, noting the instant feedback and requests for additional features from app users as far away as Africa and the Middle East. Still, Gan and his team felt that something was missing — acknowledgment from the academic community, which is essential for a successful career in research. “These are scientific contributions, and they deserve scientific recognition,” Gan explains.
Gan contacted a number of large publishing houses and after many meetings came to an agreement with Springer to create an open-access journal affiliated with the BII, with an editorial board headed by himself and Sir David Lane of the A*STAR p53 laboratory.
Thanks to Gan’s determination and almost one year of hard work, Scientific Phone Apps and Mobile Devices was launched in October 2015. It covers research- and science-related apps and peripheral devices such as add-on sensors. “We are also looking at ‘wearables’, like Google Glass and the iWatch.”
Gan hopes that by providing a way for app development to be recognized by the academic community, more researchers will be willing to invest their time in identifying gaps in their respective fields and be inspired to make apps to solve these problems.
Singapore is a logical choice for the journal’s home. It has the highest level of smartphone use in the world, with nine out of ten Singaporeans having access to a smartphone. “If we move fast enough in pursuing this area, and contribute enough resources, Singapore could be the world leader in this field as it matures into an academic field in its own right,” says Gan.
About the Bioinformatics Institute
The Bioinformatics Institute (BII) was set up by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in July 2001; it was re-launched with a strong scientific program in the autumn months of 2007. Located in Biopolis, BII is conceived as the computational biology research and postgraduate training institute as well as a national resource centre in bioinformatics within the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) of A*STAR.
The BII focuses on theoretical approaches aimed at understanding biomolecular mechanisms that underlie biological phenomena, the development of computational methods to support this discovery process, and experimental verification of predicted molecular and cellular functions of genes and proteins with biochemical methods.
Together with the BMRC, A*STAR research institutes and multinational R&D organizations in the Biopolis, the BII is situated in a conducive environment for exchange of scientific knowledge and friendly interaction that will prompt greater collaborations, and position the Biopolis as a notable biomedical R&D hub in Asia and in the world.