Academia-driven development

In this post I present an opinionated (and mostly-wrong) account on programming in academia. It's based in part on my experience as a developer working in academia and in part on conversations I had with fellow developers working in the private sector.

In academia, you rarely program even if you are in computer science. Instead, you read papers, write papers, write deliverables for ongoing projects, or write project proposals. You aren't paid to program, you are paid to publish. You do only as much programming as is needed to have something to write a paper about. “Scientists use programming the way software engineers use public transport – just as a means to get to what they have to do,” observes Bozhidar Bozhanov. While programming purists may be dissatisfied with that, Jason Baldridge is content with this state of affairs and writes: “For academics, there is basically little to no incentive to produce high quality software, and that is how it should be.”

Albert Einstein allegedly said this: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” While the attribution of this quote is dubious at best, there's a grain of truth in what the quote says. It's natural in research that you often don't know what you work on. I think this is the reason why test-driven development (TDD) is not truly applicable in research. Programming in research is used to explore new ideas. TDD, on the contrary, requires upfront specification of what you are building. German has the verb ‘basteln’ that stands for DIY fiddling. The word was adopted into the Czech spoken language with a negative connotation of not knowing what you're doing, which I think captures nicely what often happens in academic programming.

The low quality of academic software hinders its maintenance and extensibility in long-term development. For one-off experiments these concerns aren't an issue, but most experiments needs to be reproducible. Academic software must allow to reproduce and verify the results that are reported in the publication associated with it. Anyone must be able to re-run the software. It must be open-source, allowing others to scrutinize its inner workings. Unfortunately, it's often the case that academic software isn't released or, when it's made available, it's nigh impossible to run it without asking its creators for assistance.

What's more is that usability of software is hardly ever a concern in academia, in spite of the fact that usable software may attract more citations, thereby increasing the academic prestige of its author. An often-mentioned example of this effect in practice is Word2vec, the paper of which boasts with 1305 citations according to Google Scholar. Indeed, it would be a felicitous turn if we reconsidered the usability of academic software as a valuable proxy that increases citation numbers.

A great benefit that comes with reproducible and usable software is extensibility. Ted Pedersen argues that there's “a very happy side-effect that comes from creating releasable code—you will be more efficient in producing new work of your own since you can easily reproduce and extend your own results.” Nonetheless, even though software may be both reproducible and usable, extending a code base without tests may be like building on quicksand. This is usually an opportunity for refactoring. For example, the feature to be extended can be first covered with tests that document its expected behaviour, as Nell Shamrell-Harrington suggests in surgical refactoring. The subsequent feature extension must not break these tests, unless the expected behaviour should change. I think adopting this approach can do a great good to the continuity of academic development.

Finally, there's also an economic argument to make for ‘poor-quality’ academic software. If software developed in the academia achieved production quality, it would constitute a competition to software produced in the private sector. Since academia is a part of the public sector, academic endeavours are financed mostly from the public funds. Hence such competition with commercial software can be considered unfair. Dennis Polhill argues that “unfair competition exists when a government or quasi-government entity takes advantage of its tax exemption and other privileges to supply private goods to the market in competition with private suppliers.” Following this line of thought, the public sector should not subsidize the development of software that is commercially viable and can be built by private companies. Instead of developing working solutions, academia can try and test new prototypes. If released openly, this proof-of-concept work can be then adopted in the private sector and grown into commercial products.

Eventually, when exploring my thoughts on academia-driven development, I realized that I'm torn between settling for the current status quo and pushing for emancipating software with publications. While I'm stuck figuring this out, there are laudable initiatives, such as Semantic Web Developers, which organizes regular conference workshops that showcase semantic web software and incite conversations about the status of software in academia. Let's see how these conversations pan out.


In science, form follows funding

Recently, brief Twitter exchanges I had with @csarven on the subject of #LinkedResearch made me want to articulate a longer-form opinion on scientific publishing that no longer fitted a tweet. Be wary though, although this opinion is longer, it's still oversimplifying a rather complex matter for the sake of conveying the few key points I have.

There's a pervasive belief that “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it”. Not only is this quote often misattributed to Peter Drucker, its author William Edwards Deming actually wrote that “it is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it — a costly myth” (The New Economics, 2000, p. 35). Contradicting the misquoted statement, Deming instead suggested that it's possible to manage without measuring. With that being said, he acknowledges that metrics remain an essential input to management.

Since funding is a key instrument of management, metrics influence funding decisions too. Viewed from this perspective, science is difficult to fund because its quality is hard to measure. The difficulty of measuring science is widely recognized, so that scientometrics was devised with the purpose of studying how to measure science. Since measuring science directly is difficult, scientometrics found ways to measure scientific publishing, such as citation indices. Though using publishing as a proxy to science comes with an implicit assumption that the quality of scientific publications correlates positively with the quality of science, many are willing to take on this assumption simply because of the lack of a better way for evaluating science. The key issue of this approach is that the emphasis on measurability constrains the preferred form of scientific publishing to make measuring it simpler. A large share of scientific publishing is centralized in the hands of few large publishers who establish a constrained environment that can be measured with less effort. The form of publishing imposes a systemic influence on science. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, the medium is the message. While in architecture form follows function, in science, form follows funding.

Measuring distributed publishing on the Web is a harder task, though not an insurmountable one. For instance, Google's PageRank algorithm provides a fair approximation of the influence the documents distributed on the Web have. Linked research, which proposes to use the linked data principles for scientific publishing, may enable to measure science without the cost incurred by centralization of publishing. In fact, I think its proverbial “killer application” may be a measurable index like the Science Citation Index. Indeed, SCI was a great success, and it “did not stem from its primary function as a search engine, but from its use as an instrument for measuring scientific productivity” (Eugene Garfield: The evolution of the Science Citation Index, 2007). A question that naturally follows is: how off am I in thinking this?