Utopia documents: Linking scholarly literature with research data

Article (PDF Available)inBioinformatics 26(18):i568-74 · September 2010with76 Reads
DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btq383 · Source: PubMed
In recent years, the gulf between the mass of accumulating-research data and the massive literature describing and analyzing those data has widened. The need for intelligent tools to bridge this gap, to rescue the knowledge being systematically isolated in literature and data silos, is now widely acknowledged. To this end, we have developed Utopia Documents, a novel PDF reader that semantically integrates visualization and data-analysis tools with published research articles. In a successful pilot with editors of the Biochemical Journal (BJ), the system has been used to transform static document features into objects that can be linked, annotated, visualized and analyzed interactively (http://www.biochemj.org/bj/424/3/). Utopia Documents is now used routinely by BJ editors to mark up article content prior to publication. Recent additions include integration of various text-mining and biodatabase plugins, demonstrating the system's ability to seamlessly integrate on-line content with PDF articles. http://getutopia.com.


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Vol. 26 ECCB 2010, pages i568–i574
Utopia documents: linking scholarly literature with research data
T. K. Attwood
, D. B. Kell
, P. McDermott
, J. Marsh
, S. R. Pettifer
and D. Thorne
School of Computer Science,
Faculty of Life Sciences,
School of Chemistry, University of Manchester, Oxford
Road, Manchester M13 9PL and
Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre, 131 Princess Street, Manchester
M1 7DN, UK
Motivation: In recent years, the gulf between the mass of
accumulating-research data and the massive literature describing
and analyzing those data has widened. The need for intelligent tools
to bridge this gap, to rescue the knowledge being systematically
isolated in literature and data silos, is now widely acknowledged.
Results: To this end, we have developed Utopia Documents, a
novel PDF reader that semantically integrates visualization and data-
analysis tools with published research articles. In a successful
pilot with editors of the Biochemical Journal (BJ), the system
has been used to transform static document features into objects
that can be linked, annotated, visualized and analyzed interactively
(http://www.biochemj.org/bj/424/3/). Utopia Documents is now used
routinely by BJ editors to mark up article content prior to
publication. Recent additions include integration of various text-
mining and biodatabase plugins, demonstrating the system’s ability
to seamlessly integrate on-line content with PDF articles.
Availability: http://getutopia.com
Contact: teresa.k.attwood@manchester.ac.uk
The typhoon of technological advances witnessed during the last
decade has left in its wake a flood of life-science data, and an
increasingly impenetrable mass of biomedical literature describing
and analysing those data. Importantly, the modern frenzy to gather
more and more information has left us without adequate tools
either to mine the rapidly increasing data- and literature-collections
efficiently, or to extract useful knowledge from them. To be usable,
information needs to be stored and organized in ways that allow us
to access, analyze and annotate it, and ultimately to relate it to other
information. Unfortunately, however, much of the data accumulating
in databases and documents has not been stored and organized in
rigorous, principled ways. Consequently, finding what we want and,
crucially, pinpointing and understanding what we already know,
have become increasingly difficult and costly tasks (Attwood et al.,
A group of scientists for whom these problems have become
especially troublesome are biocurators, who must routinely inspect
thousands of articles and hundreds of related entries in different
databases in order to be able to attach sufficient information to a
new database entry to make it meaningful. With something like
25 000 peer-reviewed journals publishing around 2.5 million articles
per year, it is simply not possible for curators to keep abreast of
developments, to find all the relevant papers they need, to locate
the most relevant facts within them, and simultaneously to keep
To whom correspondence should be addressed.
pace with the inexorable data deluge from ongoing high-throughput
biology projects (i.e. from whole genome sequencing). For example,
to put this in context, Bairoch estimates that it has taken 23 years
to manually annotate about half of Swiss-Prot’s 516 081 entries
(Bairoch, 2009; Boeckmann et al., 2003), a painfully small number
relative to the size of its parent resource, UniProtKB (The UniProt
Consortium, 2009), which currently contains 11 million entries.
Hardly surprising, then, that he should opine, ‘It is quite depressive
to think that we are spending millions in grants for people to perform
experiments, produce new knowledge, hide this knowledge in a
often badly written text and then spend some more millions trying
to second guess what the authors really did and found’ (Bairoch,
The work of curators, and indeed of all researchers, would be far
easier if articles could provide seamless access to their underlying
research data. It has been argued that the distinction between an
online paper and a database is already diminishing (Bourne, 2005);
however, as is evident from the success stories of recent initiatives
to access and extract the knowledge embedded in the scholarly
literature, there is still work to be done. Some of these initiatives are
outlined below.
The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) took pioneering
steps towards enriching their published content with data from
external resources, creating ‘computer-readable chemistry’ with
their Prospect software (Editorial, 2007). They now offer some of
their journal articles in an enhanced HTML form, annotated using
Prospect: features that may be marked up include compound names,
bio- and chemical-ontology terms, etc. Marked-up terms provide
definitions from the various ontologies used by the system, together
with InChI (IUPAC International Chemical Identifier) codes, lists of
other RSC articles that reference these terms, synonym lists, links to
structural formulae, patent information and so on. Articles enriched
in this way make navigation to additional information trivial, and
significantly increase the appeal to readers.
In a related project, the ChemSpider Journal of Chemistry
exploits the ChemMantis System to mark up its articles
(http://www.chemmantis.com). With the ChemSpider database at
its heart, ChemMantis identifies and extracts chemical names,
converting them to chemical structures using name-to-structure
conversion algorithms and dictionary look-ups; it also marks up
chemical families, groups and reaction types, and provides links to
Wikipedia definitions where appropriate.
In an initiative more closely related to the life sciences, FEBS
Letters ran a pilot study (Ceol et al., 2008) with the curators of the
MINT interaction database (Chatr-aryamontri et al., 2007), focusing
on integration of published protein–protein interaction and post-
translational modification data with information stored in MINT
and UniProtKB. Key to the experiment was the Structured Digital
© The Author(s) 2010. Published by Oxford University Press.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/
by-nc/2.5), which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Structured summary:
MINT-6173230, MINT-6173253:
TSC22 (uniprotkb:Q15714) physically interacts (MI:0218)
with fortilin (uniprotkb:P13693) by co-immunoprecipitation
TSC22 (uniprotkb:Q15714) binds (MI:0407) fortilin (uni-
protkb:P13693) by pull-down(MI:0096)
MINT-6173240, MINT-6173270:
TSC22 (uniprotkb:Q15714) physically interacts (MI:0218)
with fortilin (uniprotkb:P13693) by two-hybrid (MI:0018)
Fig. 1. Structured summary for an article in FEBS Letters (Lee et al., 2008).
Three interactions are shown, with their links to MINT and UniProtKB.
Abstract (SDA), a device for capturing an article’s key facts in
an XML-coded summary, essentially to make them accessible to
text-mining tools (Seringhaus and Gerstein, 2007); these data were
collected from authors via a spreadsheet, and structured as shown
in Figure 1—while clearly machine-readable, this format has the
notable disadvantage of being rather human unfriendly.
A different approach was taken with BioLit (Fink et al., 2008), an
open-source system that integrates a subset of papers from PubMed
Central with structural data from the Protein Data Bank (PDB)
(Kouranov et al., 2006) and terms from biomedical ontologies. The
system works by mining the full text for terms of interest, indexing
those terms and delivering them as machine-readable XML-based
article files; these are rendered human-readable via a web-based
viewer, which displays the original text with colored highlights
denoting additional context-specific functionality (e.g. to view a 3D
structure image, to retrieve the protein sequence or the PDB entry,
to define the ontology term).
A more adventurous approach was taken by Shotton et al.
(2009), who targeted an article in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases
for semantic enhancement. The enrichments they included were
live Digital Object Identifiers and hyperlinks; mark-up of textual
terms (disease, habitat, organism, etc.), with links to external
data resources; interactive figures; a re-orderable reference list; a
document summary, with a study summary, tag cloud and citation
analysis; mouse-over boxes for displaying the key supporting
statements from a cited reference; and tag trees for bringing together
semantically related terms. In addition, they provided downloadable
spreadsheets containing data from the tables and figures, enriched
with provenance information and examples of ‘mashups’ with data
from other articles and Google Maps.
To stimulate further advances in the way scientific information
is communicated and used, Elsevier offered its Grand Challenge of
Knowledge Enhancement in the Life Sciences in 2008. The contest
aimed to develop tools for semantic annotation of journals and text-
based databases, and hence to improve access to, and dissemination
of, the knowledge contained within them. The winning software,
Reflect, focused on the dual need of life scientists to jump
from gene or protein names to their molecular sequences and to
understand more about particular genes, proteins or small molecules
encountered in the literature (Pafilis et al., 2009). Drawing on a
large, consolidated dictionary that links names and synonyms to
source databases, Reflect tags such entities when they occur in web
pages; when clicked on, the tagged items invoke pop-ups displaying
brief summaries of entities such as domain and/or small molecule
structures, interaction partners and so on, and allow navigation to
core biological databases like UniProtKB.
All of these initiatives differ slightly in their specific aims, but
nevertheless reflect the same aspiration—to get more out of digital
documents by facilitating access to underlying research data. As
such, it is interesting to see that a number of common themes have
emerged: most are HTML- or XML-based, providing hyperlinks
to external web sites and term definitions from relevant ontologies
via color-coded textual highlights; most seem to ignore PDF as a
foundation for semantic enrichment (despite a significant proportion
of publisher content being offered in this format). The results of these
projects are encouraging, each offering valuable insights into what
further advances need to be made: clearly, we need to be able to
link more than just a single database to a single article, or a single
database to several articles, or several databases to a single issue of
a single journal. Although necessary proofs of principle, these are
just first steps towards more ambitious possibilities, and novel tools
are still needed to help realize the goal of fully integrated literature
and research data.
In this article, we describe a new software tool, Utopia
Documents, which builds on Utopia, a suite of semantically
integrated protein sequence/structure visualization and analysis tools
(Pettifer et al., 2004, 2009). We describe the unique functionality
of Utopia Documents, and its use in semantic mark-up of the
Biochemical Journal (BJ). We also outline the development of a
number of new plugins, by means of which we have imported
additional functionality into the system via web services.
Utopia Documents was developed in response to the realization that, in spite
of the benefits of ‘enhanced HTML articles online, most papers are still read,
and stored by researchers in personal archives, as PDF files. Several factors
likely contribute to this reluctance to move entirely to reading articles online:
PDFs can be ‘owned’ and stored locally, without concerns about web sites
disappearing, papers being withdrawn or modified, or journal subscriptions
expiring; as self-contained objects, PDFs are easy to read offline and share
with peers (even if the legality of the latter may sometimes be dubious); and,
centuries of typographic craft have led to convergence on journal formats that
(on paper and in PDF) are familiar, broadly similar, aesthetically pleasing
and easy to read.
In its current form, Utopia Documents is a desktop application for
reading and exploring papers, and behaves like a familiar PDF reader
(Adobe Acrobat, KPDF, OS X Preview, etc.); but its real potential becomes
apparent when configured with appropriate domain-specific ontologies and
plugins. With these in place, the software transforms PDF versions of articles
from static facsimiles of their printed counterparts into dynamic gateways
to additional knowledge, linking both explicit and implicit information
embedded in the articles to online resources, as well as providing seamless
access to auxiliary data and interactive visualization and analysis tools. The
innovation in the software is in implementing these enhancements without
compromising the integrity of the PDF file itself.
Suitably configured, Utopia Documents is able to inspect the content and
structure of an article, and, using a combination of automated and manual
mechanisms, augment this content in a variety of ways:
2.1 Adding definitions
Published articles are typically restricted to a defined page count, and
are usually written for a specific audience. Explanations of terms that
might be useful to newcomers to a particular field are therefore frequently
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Fig. 2. The architecture of Utopia Documents, showing the relationship between the GUI (top), plugins (middle) and ontology (bottom).
omitted. Utopia Documents allows editors and authors to annotate terms with
definitions from online resources (Wikipedia, UniProtKB, PDB, etc.), and
permits readers to easily find definitions for themselves.
2.2 Interactive content and auxiliary data
Figures and tables in printed form are typically static snapshots of richer data
(which are nowadays often available elsewhere online). For example, a table
may represent the salient fragment of a much larger experimental dataset,
or an image of a protein structure might highlight one specific feature of
that molecule. Utopia Documents is able to transform such static tables and
figures, in situ, into dynamic, interactive objects, providing richer access to
the underlying data.
2.3 Linking references to source articles
Most articles published today are made available in electronic form, and
substantial efforts are also made by publishers to make their back-catalogues
electronically accessible. Navigating the multitude of online repositories and
bibliographic tools, however, is complex. Utopia Documents simplifies the
process of finding related articles by automatically linking references to their
digital online versions.
The software architecture comprises three main components, as
shown in Figure 2: ‘the core’, providing generic mechanisms for
displaying and manipulating articles, both programmatically and
interactively; ‘the plugins’, which analyze, annotate and visualize
document features, either automatically or under the guidance of a
user; and ‘the ontology’, which is used to semantically integrate the
other components.
3.1 The core
Optimized for interactivity, the multi-threaded core of Utopia
Documents is written in C++ using Trolltech/Nokia’s Qt toolkit. The
core serves two purposes: (i) it performs the relatively mundane
tasks necessary to generate and manage the interactive Graphical
User Interface (GUI) and to co-ordinate the behavior of the plugins,
which are loaded on demand at run-time; (ii) it carries out the
low-level analysis of PDF documents, including reading their file
format and converting them into both a visual representation to
be displayed on-screen and a hierarchical semantic model for later
higher-level analysis and annotation by the plugins. The analysis
performed by the core is generic in nature, and is restricted at
this stage to identifying typographical and layout-based features
common to scholarly papers from any discipline. Once this raw
structure has been generated, using various heuristics, the system
then identifies higher-level typographical constructs (titles, sections,
headings, figures, tables, references, etc.). Annotations identifying
these features are assembled, and added to the raw hierarchy to form
a semantic model that is then shared with, and further annotated
by, the plugins. From these ‘structural semantics’, a ‘fingerprint’ is
created that uniquely identifies the article being read, and allows the
annotations to be associated with it.
3.2 The plugins
Two broad classes of plugin are defined. ‘Annotators’ inspect a
document’s content and semantic structure, then either apply local
algorithms or communicate with external services in order to create
annotations containing additional content (e.g. definitions of terms,
user comments, links to other resources). Annotator plugins may
be configured to execute automatically when a document is loaded,
typically performing document-wide tasks, such as identifying terms
of biological or chemical interest; alternatively, they may be invoked
manually via the GUI—in these cases, the plugins have access to
the GUI’s state, and can generate context-specific annotations (e.g.
associating a highlighted region of text with a specific comment
made by a user, or finding the definition of a highlighted concept
in an online database.) ‘Visualizers’ provide various mechanisms
for displaying and interacting with annotations: e.g. an annotation
containing static images, links and ‘rich text’ may be displayed using
a browser-like visualizer, whereas one containing the structure of a
molecule from the PDB might be displayed as an interactive 3D
object. Both types of plugin may be written in C++ or Python, and
are executed in their own asynchronous environment, marshalled by
the core.
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3.3 The ontology
Rather than create ‘hard-wired’ relationships between the system’s
components, a simple ontology (in its current form, a hierarchical
taxonomy) connects the plugins to the core and to one another. This
form of semantic integration allows the components to cooperate
flexibly in the analysis of document content and structure, and allows
plugins to be developed independently of one another, with sensible
relationships and behavior being inferred at run-time rather than
being pre-determined: e.g. an annotator plugin may mark content as
containing ‘protein structure’; a visualizer plugin, encountering this
annotation at a later stage, can then decide whether to display this
as a 2D static image, an interactive 3D model or as a 1D amino acid
3.4 Access to remote resources
Via its plugins, Utopia Documents has access to a wealth of
bioinformatics data. Each plugin can use whatever client libraries
are appropriate to access web-service endpoints (both SOAP-
and REST-style), as well as other remotely accessible resources,
such as relational databases and RDF stores. Of particular note
here are two substantial ‘linked data’ initiatives that have proven
to be of enormous value to our work. The first of these, the
Bio2RDF project (Belleau et al., 2008), combines the content of
many of the major life-science databases as a federated linked-
data network accessible via SPARQL and REST interfaces. This
both offers a single mechanism via which Utopia Documents can
search multiple primary databases, and enforces a consistent naming
scheme between sources, allowing results to be interrelated. The
second (and more general), DBPedia, is a machine-readable RDF-
based conversion of the popular human-readable Wikipedia (Auer
et al., 2007). Although containing much information that is irrelevant
to the life sciences, Wikipedia (and thus DBPedia) has evolved to
represent a significant and mostly authoritative corpus of scientific
knowledge—a study performed by the journal Nature concluded
that its entries were as accurate (or indeed, as error prone) as
those published in Encylopaedia Britannica (Giles, 2005, 2006).
The combined application of ontologies and RDF in DBPedia
allows queries performed by Utopia Documents to traverse only
the portions of the DBPedia network that are semantically related
to the life sciences. Thus, in the context of a paper on enzymatic
substrate cleavage, a search initiated via Utopia Documents for the
term ‘cleavage’ returns far more appropriate definitions than would
the same search in a more generic context.
Utopia Documents is freely available via the project web site for
Mac OS X (10.4 and later), Microsoft Windows XP and Vista and
Ubuntu Linux. We welcome any feedback on the software.
Utopia Documents was developed in response to the need to achieve
tighter coupling between published articles and their underlying
data, ultimately to facilitate knowledge discovery. The tool was
designed with two classes of user in mind; the reader, as consumer
of published material; and the journal editor, as curator. To this end,
the software was piloted with Portland Press Limited (PPL) with
the goal of rendering the content of BJ electronic publications and
supplemental data richer and more accessible.
To achieve this, an ‘editors version’ of Utopia Documents,
with customized plugins, was integrated with PPLs editorial and
document-management workflows, allowing BJ editors to mark
up article content prior to publication. In terms of functionality,
the editor’s version of the software behaves much the same as
the readers, with the additional feature that relationships between
concepts in a document and online definitions/records can be made
permanent in order to be shared with readers (Fig. 3g). The role
of the editors was therefore to explore each pre-publication PDF,
annotating terms and figures with definitions and interactive content
and then validating them with a ‘stamp of approval’ (i.e. the BJ
With the customized software in-house, article annotation was
fairly swift, individual papers taking 10–30 min, depending on
their suitability for mark-up. The launch issue of the Semantic BJ
(December 2009; http://www.biochemj.org/bj/424/3/) was primarily
handled by two editors; since then, the whole editorial team has
been involved in the successful mark-up of eight further issues.
Entities relating to protein sequences and structures have been,
of necessity, the main targets for mark-up, because this was the
functionality built into the original Utopia toolkit. The kinds of
additional mark-up provided by the software include links from
the text to external web sites, term definitions from ontologies
and controlled vocabularies, embedded data and materials (images,
videos, etc.) and links to interactive tools for sequence alignment
and 3D molecular visualization.
To allow readers to benefit from these semantic enhancements,
a readers version of the software was made freely available
(http://getutopia.com). The tool installs easily on the desktop as
an alternative PDF viewer. Once opened, it displays a window
consisting of three regions (Fig. 3): the main reading pane
displays the article itself and supports the pagination, searching,
zooming and scrolling features typical of PDF readers. Below this,
thumbnail images give an overview of the document and allow
rapid navigation through it. The sidebar on the right displays the
contents of annotations, providing term definitions and access to
auxiliary data as the article is explored. When no specific terms are
selected, the sidebar defaults to displaying document-wide metadata
[including the title, authors, keywords, abbreviations, etc. (3d)],
in addition to the cited references (3e)—these are linked, where
available, via open-access publishing agreements or institutional
or individual subscriptions, to the online versions of the original
articles. Where the PDF version is not available to the reader,
clicking on the reference currently launches a Google Scholar search
To avoid cluttering the text with ‘highlighter pen’-type marks, the
presence of annotations, or availability of auxiliary data, is indicated
by discreet colored glyphs in the margin. Similar marks are added to
the corner of the corresponding thumbnail in the pager, to indicate
that additional information exists somewhere on that page. Mousing-
over a glyph highlights the nearby terms, or document regions,
that contain annotations; selecting these areas causes the associated
data to be displayed—this may involve populating the sidebar with
definitions, or may activate an embedded interactive visualization.
Highlighting any word or phrase in the paper (3a) initiates a context-
sensitive search of the online resources to which Utopia Documents
is connected, all results again appearing in the sidebar. At the bottom
of the sidebar (3b), a ‘lookup’ feature allows searches for terms not
explicitly mentioned in the paper.
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Fig. 3. Utopia Documents’ user interface showing: (a) a selected term in the article; (b) manual term lookup; (c) resulting definitions of that term retrieved
from Wikipedia (via DBPedia) and the PDB; (d) metadata relating to the whole document (shown when no specific term definition is selected); (e) live links
to articles in the article’s bibliography; (f) an icon indicating the ‘authority’ for a particular annotation (here, the BJ) and (g) the panel used by BJ editorial
staff to associate terms with annotations (note that this is only available in the ‘editors version’ of Utopia Documents).
4.1 Annotations
An annotated term or region in a document may be associated
with definitions and/or database records from a variety of sources.
Selecting a term invokes the display of all possible definitions,
allowing the reader (or editor) to select for themselves the most
appropriate version. The provenance of these definitions is indicated
in their headers, as illustrated in Figure 3: the icon on the left
(3c) represents the item’s origin [e.g., UniprotKB, Wikipedia,
KEGG (Kanehisa et al., 2010)], while the presence of an icon
on the right-hand side of the header (3f) indicates the person,
group or organization who made, and endorsed, the association
between a term and this specific definition (here, publisher-validated
annotations carry the BJ logo).
4.2 Interactive content
The current version of Utopia Documents supports three forms of
embedded interactive content; as with term definitions, these are
indicated by red glyphs in the margins. Selecting these causes
a ‘media player’-like panel to appear, which the reader can use
to control the behavior of the interactive content. Activating the
triangular ‘play’ button replaces the static content, in situ, with
its interactive version; the neighboring ‘pop-up’ button opens a
new window leaving the static page unchanged. Each type of
interactive content has its own functionality: 3D molecules (Fig. 4),
for example, can be rotated, zoomed and rendered in a variety
of styles (e.g. space-fill, backbone or cartoon); sequences and
their associated features can be inspected individually, or edited
as multiple alignments; and tables of data can be manipulated or
converted automatically into scatter-plots or histograms. Figure 4
illustrates the simple transformation from static images of tables
and figures into semantically annotated, interactive objects.
Utopia Documents provides new ways of reading, of interacting
with and ultimately of assimilating the knowledge embodied within
research articles. The approach taken here departs from many
initiatives in scholarly publishing in that the focus for enrichment
is the hitherto-largely-neglected static PDF file, rather than HTML-
or XML-based files. The subject of ‘static PDF’ versus ‘dynamic
online’ articles has been hotly contested in the literature, the general
consensus being that PDF is semantically limited by comparison
with other online formats and is thus antithetical to the spirit of
web publishing (Lynch, 2007; Renear and Palmer, 2009; Shotton
et al., 2009; Wilbanks, 2007). We argue that PDFs are merely a
mechanism for rendering words and figures, and are thus no more
or less ‘semantic’ than the HTML used to generate web pages.
Utopia Documents is hence an attempt to provide a semantic bridge
that connects the benefits of both the static and the dynamic online
incarnations of published texts. Inevitably, those who prefer to read
articles online in a web browser will view the need to download
a new, desktop-based PDF reader as a weakness. Our view is,
rather, that Utopia Documents complements browser-based tools,
providing a novel mechanism for unleashing knowledge that is
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Fig. 4. Image sequences showing the transformation of a 2D image (left-hand panel) and of a static table of figures (right-hand panel) into interactive objects:
i.e. a manipulable 3D model (coordinates extracted from the PDB) and a set of ‘live’ figures and a customizable semantic graph.
otherwise locked in personal, publisher and/or institutional PDF-file
In contrast with approaches for creating dynamic (as opposed
to ‘semantic’) life-science PDF articles (Kumar et al., 2008;
Ruthensteiner and Hess, 2008) that use Adobe Acrobat’s support
for ‘Universal 3D Data’ (U3D), Utopia Documents does not insert
its augmented content into the PDF file itself, but instead blends
additional visual material into the display process at the final stages
of rendering. This mechanism presents a number of benefits over the
generic U3D approach: (i) the underlying PDF file remains small
and compact, and does not become bloated by the large polygonal
meshes necessary for rendering 3D molecules; (ii) rather than the
‘one size fits all’ U3D approach, Utopia Documents is able to select
appropriate rendering and interaction algorithms for different types
of artifact; (iii) Utopia Documents is able to maintain a semantic
relationship between the underlying scholarly article and the object
being rendered; and importantly; (iv) the original PDF, as an ‘object
of record’, remains unadulterated and its integrity can be verified by
examining it with a conventional PDF viewer.
The philosophy embodied in Utopia Documents is to hide as
much of the underlying complexity as possible, to avoid requiring
users (whether editors, authors or readers) to change their existing
document-reading behaviors, and to present no significant extra
hurdles to publication. Like the initiatives in semantic publishing
outlined earlier, the Semantic BJ, powered by Utopia Documents, is
a pilot, the success of which will depend on various factors, including
whether the barriers to adoption are sufficiently low, and whether
the approach is considered to add sufficient value. Although it is too
early to assess the impact of the pilot on readers of the Semantic
BJ, the take-up of the software by the BJs full editorial team, and
it use to mark up every issue since the launch, is a testament to the
software’s ease-of-use. Of course, as the project with PPL develops,
we will gather relevant usage and usability data in order to provide
a more meaningful evaluation.
Many of the projects discussed in this article have exploited fairly
traditional text-mining methods, in conjunction with controlled
vocabularies and ontologies, to facilitate the launch of relevant
external web pages from marked-up entities in documents. As such,
they come with all the limitations in precision of current text-mining
tools; this brings a significant overhead to readers in terms of having
to identify errors. Of course, the difficulty for non-experts in any
given field is to be able to recognize when particular annotations
really are errors, and failure to identify them as such leads to the
danger of error propagation. In light of these issues, we took a
slightly different approach to entity mark-up in this first incarnation
of Utopia Documents, taking advantage of linked-data initiatives
to facilitate mark-up and add value to published texts. However,
because the functionality of the system is easily customizable via its
flexible plugin architecture, any text-mining tool or database that is
accessible via web services can be trivially added to the suite. As a
demonstration of the potential of this architecture, in collaboration
with their developers, three prototype plugins that link Utopia to
other systems have been implemented:
Reflect: as mentioned earlier, the Reflect system is primarily used
as a means of augmenting HTML content online, either by accessing
a web page via the project’s portal, or by installing a browser plugin
(http://reflect.ws/). Its entity-recognition engine, however, may also
be accessed programmatically via a web service, which, given a
section of text, identifies objects of biological interest and returns
links to the summary pop-ups. Integration of Reflect’s functionality
with Utopia Documents is therefore a comparatively straightforward
task: as a user reads a PDF document, its textual content is extracted
and sent to the Reflect web service; the resulting entities are then
highlighted in the PDF article, and linked to the appropriate pop-up,
which is displayed when a highlighted term is selected. A particular
advantage of this integration is that it provides the reader with a light-
weight mechanism for verifying or cross-checking results returned
from multiple sources (e.g. Reflect, Bio2RDF, DBpedia/Wikipedia).
GPCRDB: this is a specialist database describing sequences,
ligand-binding constants and mutations relating to G protein-
coupled receptors (http://www.gpcr.org/). Its recently developed
web-service interface provides programmatic access to much of
its content, enabling Utopia Documents to identify and highlight
receptors and their associated mutants when encountered in PDFs.
Thus, the presence of a GPCR in an article triggers the creation
of a link to a description of that receptor in the database,
which is displayed in the sidebar. The article is then scanned for
mutants, which in turn are linked to the relevant mutant records in
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T.K.Attwood et al.
GPCRDB. Having identified an appropriate receptor, the software
then automatically translates between the sequence co-ordinates,
allowing ‘equivalent’ residues to be readily mapped between them.
ACKnowledge Enhancer and the Concept Wiki: the Concept
Wiki is a repository of community-editable concepts, currently
relating to people and proteins, stored as RDF triples and fronted
by a wiki-like interface (http://www.conceptwiki.org). Its associated
ACKnowledge Enhancer is an analysis tool that links HTML content
to relevant objects in the Concept Wiki and other online sources,
exposing these to the user as selectable HTML highlights that, when
activated, generate dynamic pop-ups. As with the Reflect plugin,
integration with these systems via their web services provides
a straightforward way of migrating functionality previously only
available for HTML content to scientific PDF articles.
Videos showing these plugins in use are available at
Utopia Documents is at an early stage of development and there
is more work to be done. In the future, as well as opening its
APIs to other developers, we plan to extend its scope to systems
and chemical biology, and to the medical and health sciences, as
many of the requisite chemical, systems biology, biomedical, disease
and anatomy ontologies are already in place and accessible via
the OBO Foundry (Smith et al., 2007). Furthermore, the growing
impetus of ‘institutional repositories’ as vehicles for collecting
and sharing scholarly publications and data, and an increase in
the acceptance of open access publishing, together present many
interesting possibilities that we are keen to explore.
Another planned extension is to allow readers to append
annotations and notes/comments to articles. There are various
scenarios to consider here: (i) a reader might wish to make a ‘note
to self in the margin, for future reference; (ii) a reviewer might
wish to make several marginal notes, possibly to be shared with
other reviewers and journal editorial staff; (iii) a reader might wish
to append notes to be shared with all subsequent readers of the
article (e.g., because the paper describes an exciting breakthrough
or because it contains an error)—these scenarios involve different
security issues, and hence we will need to investigate how to
establish appropriate ‘webs of trust’. Ultimately, allowing users to
append their own annotations (in addition to those endorsed by
publishers) should help to involve authors in the manuscript mark-up
Utopia Documents brings us a step closer to integrated scholarly
literature and research data. The software is poised to make
contributions in a number of areas: for publishers, it offers a
mechanism for adding value to oft-neglected PDF archives; for
scientists whose routine work involves having to attach meaning
to raw data from high-throughput biology experiments (database
curators, bench biologists, researchers in pharmaceutical companies,
etc.), it provides seamless links between facts published in articles,
information deposited in databases and the requisite interactive tools
to analyze and verify them; for readers in general, it provides both
an enhanced reading experience and exciting new opportunities for
knowledge discovery and ‘community peer review’.
We thank all Portland Press staff for helping to realize the Semantic
BJ, and, in particular, Rhonda Oliver and Audrey McCulloch for
their courage, patience and positive collaboration. For their help
and guidance in developing interfaces and plugins to their software,
we also thank: Gert Vriend and Bas Vroling (GPCRDB); Barend
Mons, Jan Velterop, Hailiang Mei (Concept Wiki); and Lars Juhl
Jensen and Sean O’Donoghue (Reflect).
Funding: Portland Press Limited (The Semantic Biochemical
Journal project) (Utopia Documents); European Union
(EMBRACE, grant LHSG-CT-2004-512092); Biotechnology
and Biological Sciences Research Council (Target practice, grant
BBE0160651); Engineering and Physical Sciences Research
Council (Doctoral Training Account).
Conflict of Interest: none declared.
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