Why should we care about open source software?

This is a guest blogpost from Leonardo Barichello, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Let me start this post by telling two true stories.

The first story took place about a year ago when a colleague asked me for help in generating a report according to a very specific criterion on Nvivo (an expensive software that supports qualitative researchers to analyse their data). This colleague is very competent with the software and, before asking me, looked for help online and with specialists available in the university. However, nobody, including me, could find a way to generate the report she needed in order to carry on her data analysis, even though it seemed a very reasonable (and even simple) request that could have been solved with a spreadsheet exported by the software.

The second story is publicly known and took place in 2013. Elsevier, the most profitable company in the business of academic publications, bought Mendeley, a software for reference management that is used across the world and was famous for being free of charge and very open to listening to its community of users (even though it is not open source). Two years later, Mendeley launched a new feature called “Suggest”. This takes into account your profile, your readings and your publications to suggest new papers that could be of interest to you.

So, what do these two stories have in common?

The inexplicable dependence of the research community on closed, proprietary software.

The problem in the first story could have been solved if Nvivo offered options to export content to friendly formats, such as databases or spreadsheets, or used a friendly format to store its content, allowing users to explore it fully should they wish to do so. That these two functions are not available is very typical of closed, proprietary software because it forces users to stay with them and does not enable them to discover other tools that could eventually be more useful. (For those interested, I solved the problem of my colleague by “cracking open” her Nvivo file and fiddling with its content.)

Regarding the second story, I believe most of you may have spotted the problem. Do you trust Elsevier enough to believe that they are not favouring their own publications when Mendeley suggests new papers?

I do not want to sound paranoid here, but a good part of the academic community has already raised concerns about those companies that dominate the scientific publishing market. And some believe that this market is in needs of some kind of revolution. As soon as possible.

So, what is the point of this post?

To start a much needed academic conversation about open source software.

Today, software development is much more viable than it was in the times of socially awkward geeks working in garages in the US West Coast. Almost every university has a course on Computer Science, Software Engineering and so on. Besides, many solutions necessary for researchers in some fields (here I am writing specifically about educational research) already exist as open source. For instance, Zotero is an amazing open source alternative to Mendeley or Endnote. And others could be developed with no need for great investment in terms of money and time. In fact, Pipoca is an alternative to Nvivo that I developed for my own research purposes.

Open source research software can make all the stages of the inquiry process more transparent, give users more control, enable them to try and experiment with new approaches, and allow them to develop their own solutions to the challenges they are facing.

Finally, open source software is much more inclusive in two ways. First, it is usually cheaper (one Nvivo pro license for educational use costs about the same as one month of a PhD scholarship in Brazil). Second, it gives marginalized groups the opportunity to learn from existing software and develop their own solutions to the research questions.

So, if researchers are truly committed to freedom and autonomy, innovation, collaboration and inclusion, we need to talk more about open source software.

Image sourced from Wikimedia.



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