Does “Open API” mean anything?

Roderic Page ( ) has discussed Mendeley’s “Open API” and decided (as do I [Mendeley, Scopus, Talis – will you be making your data Open? ] ) that whether the code is Open is less important than whether the data is Open.

This is a good opportunity to address the almost meaningless phrase “Open API”. “Open” is often used as a marketing phrase, similar to “healthy”, “Green”, “safe” or many others. To show the problem, here’s a typical experience. I was at a LIS conference and a company which provides library tools and services was trumpeting its “Open API”. So I asked:

  • “was the API publicly available?” … No
  • “Could they let me have details?” … no
  • “why not?” … because their competitors might see it

As far as I could gather (and this is not an isolated case – I’ve seen it in chemical software companies )– “Open” means something like:

“if you purchase our software we will document our trade secrets for you if you are prepared to contarct that you will not divulge any details”

My complaint is not with this per se, (although it generally restricts innovation and constructive feedback) but the use of “Open API” to describe it. “Open ” surely means more than “we have documented our software architecture and you can buy the documentation under a secrecy agreement”.

It will be no surprise use that I use “Open” carefully consistent with with the OKF’s Open Definition:

The Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) sets out principles to define ‘openness’ in knowledge – that’s any kind of content or data ‘from sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata’. The definition can be summed up in the statement that “A piece of knowledge is open if you are free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.”.

The Open Software Service Definition (OSSD) defines ‘openness’ in relation to online (software) services. It can be summed up in the statement that “A service is open if its source code is Free/Open Source Software and non-personal data is open as in the Open Knowledge Definition (OKD).”.

The second is important in this case as well as the first.

I have no particular quarrel with Mendeley – they are innovating by putting power in the hands of clients and that’s gently useful. But unless they actually are Open according to the OKD then they aren’t giving us much (and this applies to many companies – and almost all in chemistry). At present “Open API” seems to mean

“We will show you how you can query the data in our system without fee”. This is free beer, not Libre. It’s not an Open service, it’s a free service. Here are some common features of Free but not Open services:

  • They can be withdrawn at any time. This is extremely common in Free services – It’s happened innumerable times in chemical information systems. A company will offer free access and then later offer it only to subscribers or offer only a very limited service (a handful of queries)
  • There are no explicit rights for re-using the results. Here’s a typical phrase from Surechem (a Macmillan subsidiary ):

    Unless you have SureChem’s prior written permission you are not permitted to copy, broadcast, make available to the public, show or play in public, adapt or change in any way the material (or any part of it) contained on this Web Site for any purpose whatsoever. Unless you are SureChem Pro or PDF subscriber, you may not download, store (in any medium) or transmit the material contained on this Web Site. Access of the SureChem database in an automated manner is not permitted, and may result in banning from the Web Site, as well as legal action. Data from this Web Site may not be resold or redistributed. SureChem, Inc. reserves the right to ban users from this site, whether using automated means or not, if, in our sole opinion, they are abusing our data or database.


    There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s similar in their companion company “Free Patents online” ( ). They don’t claim the word “Open”. Just make sure you understand the difference between Free-as-in-beer and fully Open.

  • You don’t have access to the full data. You never know whether you are seeing the full index or part of it. There is no algorithm to expose the whole data. By contrast you can, in principle, download the whole of an Open system.
  • The data are not normally semantic and the metadata of the system is often inadequately documented. The results are often presented as ASCII strings rather than XML or RDF, and the user often has to guess at their meaning. There is often no identifier system. (admittedly Open systems can suffer from this as well, but at least the community can correct or enhance it).

These features make it impossible to use the data as true Linked Open Data.

I have no major complaint with a company which collects its own data and offers it as Free – Google does this and many more.

But don’t call it Open.

So commercial companies which promote mashups, linked open data, semantic web, etc but do not make their data Open are using these concepts as marketing tools rather than providing roots of community innovation.

I don’t know where Mendeley are at. When I asked some of their staff about whether the data were Open, they said yes. I then wrote to Ian Mulvany – I’m still waiting to hear back – maybe at his session at Science Online. I hope their data really are Open because that will change the world. Free will simply change the balance between monopolists.


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8 Responses to Does “Open API” mean anything?

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - Does “Open API” mean anything? « petermr’s blog [] on

  2. finid says:

    Is hyperlinking whole paragraphs intentional, or did somebody forget to close a tag?

  3. Mr. Gunn says:

    I understand exactly what you’re asking, Peter, and it seems to me that we meet the definition of open. We could be more explicit about this, however, so we’ll try to make this clearer. As you say, semantic markup and data quality are issues everyone deals with, open or not. Hiding poor quality results doesn’t make a service less open.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks – I agree on greater explicitness and clarity. Because of that we have formalized the request in an IsItOpen request which I’ll comment on in this blog.

  4. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, Cambridge - Does “Open API” mean anything? « petermr’s blog [] on

  5. Pingback: Mendeley and Openness |

  6. Pingback: Dear publisher, is the data open? « Research Remix

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