Beyond Open Access: Open Source Scientific Software
from the sauce-for-the-goose,-sauce-for-the-gander dept
Although the traditional image of a science laboratory typically consists of a room full of test tubes or microscopes, the reality is that computers now play a central role there, just as they do for business and life in general.
Computers need software, and some of that software will be specially written or adapted from existing code to meet the particular needs of the scientists’ work. This makes computer software a vital component of the scientific process. It also means that being able to check that code for errors is as important as being able to check the rest of the experiment’s methodology. And yet very rarely can other scientists do that, because the code employed is not made available.
A new paper in Science points out that this needs to change:
The publication and open exchange of knowledge and material form the backbone of scientific progress and reproducibility and are obligatory for publicly funded research. Despite increasing reliance on computing in every domain of scientific endeavor, the computer source code critical to understanding and evaluating computer programs is commonly withheld, effectively rendering these programs “black boxes” in the research work flow. Exempting from basic publication and disclosure standards such a ubiquitous category of research tool carries substantial negative consequences. Eliminating this disparity will require concerted policy action by funding agencies and journal publishers, as well as changes in the way research institutions receiving public funds manage their intellectual property (IP).
As that notes, the open exchange of knowledge and materials are obligatory for publicly-funded research, and there’s no reason why it should be any different for software that is written in order to conduct the experiment. After all, this, too, has been funded by the tax-payers, who therefore have a right to enjoy the results. There may not be much they can do with it directly, but they can still benefit when other scientists are able to build on the code of others, instead of needing to re-invent the digital wheel for their own experiments.
The paper makes an important point that deserves a wide audience, because it’s about a public policy issue. So it’s a huge pity that, ironically, it is not published under an open access licence, and can only be read by Science’s subscribers.