Code of gratitude

Giving due credit to scientific software development.

A substantial amount of work involved in data-intensive problem-solving is based on resources that virtually cost nothing to the end-user. Nada, gratis. You find it, you download it, you use it, and in some cases, you can modify it to tailor it to your own needs.  You might even benefit from the experience of a large community of developers and users. Almost everything you need to learn or advance in your work.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in scientific research, across disciplines and application domains. The positive effects of free software and other types of open resources on scientific advancement are priceless. No single indicator of “impact” and “return on investment” could do justice to the benefits generated by such tools, languages and platforms.

Although users and other stakeholders often cite sources when reporting their work, this is not even consistently done. There are so many people (and work hours) invested in the noble idea of making and sharing code. So many anonymous contributors, unknown leaders and unselfish enablers who make such a moral choice every day. And yet, there is so much work that goes unrecognized.

The marvelous thing is that the communities that bring us all these ideas and solutions are made up of a particular kind of people. Mostly, they are people who care about societal challenges and do things just for the fun of it. They nurture projects that are fueled by unremitting passion, enjoyment and curiosity. This is not a world particularly suited to the celebrity wannabe and the bullshitter.

There is the rub: There is always the temptation to take the labors and contributions from these communities for granted. Almost a sense of entitlement among direct and indirect beneficiaries. The expectation that all those great tools and resources are self-made and self-perpetuating. The presumption that somewhere, somebody will make them for you, one way or the other.

In times of increasing excitement about “all things data”, it is crucial that stakeholders continue finding concrete ways to support, motivate or give due credit to those who create and share software. Multiple reward instruments, monetary and non-monetary, will be important. Impact assessment will also be necessary. This is more than a matter of fairness for a particular group of people. This is also about sustaining scientific and societal progress.

For now, I take a step back to tell the men and women behind the screen: It is a privilege to have access to the products of your talents and hard work. To the good people who give us the languages, databases and tools that make science happen: I am grateful to you.