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Why you should cite open source tools

Every now and then, a moment or a sentence in a conversation sticks out at you, and lodges itself in the back of your brain for months or even years. In this case, the sentence is a tweet, and I fear that the only way to dislodge it is to talk about it publicly.

Last year, I complained on Twitter that a very prominent paper that was getting lots of attention used scikit-image, but failed to cite our paper. (Or the papers corresponding to many other open source packages.) I continued that scientists developing open source software depend on these citations to continue their work. (More on this in another post...) One response was that surely the developers of the open source scientific Python stack were not scientists per se, and that citations were not a priority for them.

I still sigh internally when I think of it.

That tweet manifests a pervasive perception that open source scientific software is written by God-like figures. These massively experienced software developers have easy access to funds for their work, and are at the service of all the other scientists, who are their users. I used to share this perception, but it is utterly false.

I certainly hadn't thought about the funding question, but I did think of packages like NumPy and SciPy as being written by "pros" (whatever that means), whose main job was to produce these amazing libraries.

My ideas started to change only after I attended the SciPy 2012 conference, and I was invited to the scikit-image sprint by its lead author, Stéfan van der Walt. I was totally starstruck, and even after meeting him I just assumed his job was "open source guru", or somesuch. It is only later that I learned that he was a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in applied mathematics at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa. As with other academics, his main job was to produce research and to teach. Open source was something he produced on the side.

(Years later, as we were scrambling to finish the final chapter for Elegant SciPy, Stéfan revamped the build infrastructure for our book — the scripts and configuration files that converted the Markdown text we were writing to executed code and html. "You have poor prioritisation skills, you know?", I taunted. He responded: "Yeah. But a lot of the SciPy documentation toolchain exists because of that." And yes: the revamped scripts ended up being extremely useful during the editing phase with O'Reilly.)

After the conference I continued to contribute to scikit-image, eventually joining the core development team, but throughout the process I continued to feel like an impostor, someone who had somehow managed to gain entrance to this hallowed and otherworldly community despite his inferior skills and knowledge.

Only after years of interacting with this community did I internalise the fact that nearly all of this software stack has been produced by practising scientists who took the extra care and effort to ensure that their code was robust, well-tested, and easily accessible to all. Despite a recent influx of interest and contributions from industry, as far as I can tell, most contributions to the SciPy stack still come from practising scientists in academia.

I know this now, but until recently I was suffering from another fallacy: that if I knew it, clueless as I was, then surely everybody knew it. That tweet disabused me of that notion, and this is why you're reading this. I hope it is instructive, and that you'll find it worth sharing widely.

This idea, that the SciPy stack is made by active scientists, is important because it affects how this work can be supported. Sadly, neither university hierarchies nor national funding bodies recognise code as valuable output. (There are some exceptions, but this remains the norm.) By and large, the only things that count are papers, grants, and, to a lesser extent, teaching evaluation scores.

So, yes, many of the original contributors to the SciPy libraries are now in industry. But they were academics at the time that they contributed and were driven out because academia did not value their contributions. Academics should not have to sacrifice their careers to contribute to open source. Citations to software papers are an imperfect solution to this problem (again, more soon), but they sure as hell are better than nothing.

So, if you are a user of open source tools in the Scientific Python stack, I have two requests for you:

  1. When you publish your work, cite every library that you import. Most scientific software has a notice on their homepage or README file pointing to a paper you can cite. By definition, if you've imported a library, you've found it useful, and if you've found it useful, then you probably care about supporting its authors. This is a small way you can contribute to their success.
  2. You are good enough to contribute. If you have an issue with an open source package you are using, look at the source code. Submit an issue to the project's bug tracker (usually GitHub). And try your hand at fixing it. The software's authors will usually offer guidance on how to do this, and you will improve your own skills as a result. Good software development practices is one of the most transferrable skills you can gain.

Of course, citations alone will not solve the wider problem that open source software is chronically undervalued. I have many thoughts about how open source should be supported, especially in science, but I'll expand on that in an upcoming post.

Update: I'm adding a link to a related post: What do scientists know about open source?


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