Dec 04, 2014
BACKGROUND: Reporting and sharing experimental metadata- such as the experimental design, characteristics of the samples, and procedures applied, along with the analysis results, in a standardised manner ensures that datasets are comprehensible and, in principle, reproducible, comparable and reusable. Furthermore, sharing datasets in formats designed for consumption by humans and machines will also maximize their use. The Investigation/Study/Assay (ISA) open source metadata tracking framework facilitates standards-compliant collection, curation, visualization, storage and sharing of datasets, leveraging on other platforms to enable analysis and publication. The ISA software suite includes several components used in increasingly diverse set of life science and biomedical domains; it is underpinned by a general-purpose format, ISA-Tab, and conversions exist into formats required by public repositories. While ISA-Tab works well mainly as a human readable format, we have also implemented a linked data approach to semantically define the ISA-Tab syntax. RESULTS: We present a semantic web representation of the ISA-Tab syntax that complements ISA-Tab's syntactic interoperability with semantic interoperability. We introduce the linkedISA conversion tool from ISA-Tab to the Resource Description Framework (RDF), supporting mappings from the ISA syntax to multiple community-defined, open ontologies and capitalising on user-provided ontology annotations in the experimental metadata. We describe insights of the implementation and how annotations can be expanded driven by the metadata. We applied the conversion tool as part of Bio-GraphIIn, a web-based application supporting integration of the semantically-rich experimental descriptions. Designed in a user-friendly manner, the Bio-GraphIIn interface hides most of the complexities to the users, exposing a familiar tabular view of the experimental description to allow seamless interaction with the RDF representation, and visualising descriptors to drive the query over the semantic representation of the experimental design. In addition, we defined queries over the linkedISA RDF representation and demonstrated its use over the linkedISA conversion of datasets from Nature' Scientific Data online publication. CONCLUSIONS: Our linked data approach has allowed us to: 1) make the ISA-Tab semantics explicit and machine-processable, 2) exploit the existing ontology-based annotations in the ISA-Tab experimental descriptions, 3) augment the ISA-Tab syntax with new descriptive elements, 4) visualise and query elements related to the experimental design. Reasoning over ISA-Tab metadata and associated data will facilitate data integration and knowledge discovery.