Issue No.06 - November/December (2003 vol.20)
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MS.2003.10027
Open Source Research Ethics
I enjoyed Warren Harrison's From the Editor column "Whose Information Is It Anyway?" (July/August 03). Including open source projects in research studies can provide useful feedback to the open source industry, widen the scope of existing software engineering research, and give us a better understanding of a larger variety of software products. However, using open source data is still a debated issue from an ethical perspective.
Ethics are about what a community accepts to be right and wrong. In this note, I describe what I find to be the right ways of getting involved in the open source world as a researcher. I think that further discussions on this issue will be useful to our community.
I believe that researchers, like other individuals, should have a right to get involved in open source projects and contribute to them in their own unique way. When researchers begin working on an open source project, they should email the project's mailing list(s), introduce themselves, clearly explain the scope and goals of their study, and ask for help.
After that, they should feel responsible for contributing to the project while pursuing their research goals. This includes answering questions, exchanging ideas, contributing to the common knowledge, and keeping the project participants updated about the research results and final publications. By doing this, researchers automatically become active participants in the project. Then, they are entitled to comment on such issues as why the last release has more bugs, why progress is slow, and so on, just as other participants do.
In addition, I think researchers have a responsibility to make their results publicly accessible, so that many others can question their research methods and results. On the positive side, when the larger community can verify research results on an open platform, it might be possible to reach healthier conclusions.
Researchers should also avoid naming developers in correspondence and publications, although this doesn't make tracing individual developers totally impossible. In my opinion, open source communities have already accepted the fact that nobody is error-free and integrated bug tracking systems into their processes. Therefore, developers should be open to the opinions of others.
Developers need to be conscious about the fact that the data and artifacts they leave behind will be publicly available; they can hide their identity if they want. If our research community feels strongly about this issue, we can ask important open source projects and project-hosting Web sites such as sourceforge.net and freshmeat.net to post warnings or disclaimers on their developer Web sites. Then smaller projects can follow what they do. Presently, developers might not be aware of the issues discussed here. Developer information is even made available on some projects' Web sites (see http://people.kde.org).
A final note about the quality of data in open source repositories: Although the data might be out there, it might not be suitable to be readily used in empirical studies. For example, if a researcher is interested in using defect data, preliminary studies about consistency in data collection, completeness of defect records, and so on, will be necessary.
A. Günes Koru, PhD candidate; Southern Methodist University; firstname.lastname@example.org
Warren Harrison responds:
I agree that OSS is not only a convenient source of data, as more of it becomes available to the public, but also an important segment to study in itself.
Some studies are statistical in nature; there's no way to identify individual participants. On the other hand, there are tools and studies in which individuals are easily identified. Just because a tool's author doesn't identify individuals directly, I don't think he or she is off the hook ethically if someone can use the tool (or the study) to identify individuals and it is made available to others.
For instance, suppose you have an OSS product created by one or two developers. If, in comparing various OSS products, you identify this product (or describe it in a way that makes its identification trivial) as having the highest bug rate, you have for all intents and purposes identified the individuals. Now suppose your analysis includes some judgmental aspect such as "most unmaintainable code," which is really a synthesis of metrics and opinions as opposed to a simple count of artifacts such as lines of code or number of comments. Then you've added insult to injury.
However, I believe the real burden is on those organizations and people that host this kind of data to start with. Either contributors should be given an explicit informed-consent option, or (preferably) the data should be stored in such a way that extracting individual identities is simply not possible.
It would indeed be interesting if academic studies of OSS began being reviewed by campus Human Subjects boards, as more traditional survey and controlled experiments already are.
Balancing Both Worlds
I enjoyed Bob Glass's last two Loyal Opposition columns. When I browse through so-called "software engineering" books, I find that authors rarely have much real-world experience. Of course there are a few exceptions, but rarely under the software engineering umbrella.
About the academic-versus-industry debate, I've found that balancing the two worlds is hard. Usually for professors, people in industry are just developers who write buggy code. And for industry people, professors only care about writing conference papers, not code. It's a pity. At the end of the day, we must remember that we are basically part of the same business—like it or not.
Also, if you're trying to go back to school, most computer science departments don't care about your industrial experience; you're just another student. It would be nice if universities could offer two PhD tracks: industrial and academic. If you chose the industrial one, you should be able to work on more real-world problems. Perhaps that's the one for teaching software engineering.
Finally, I believe it's possible to balance both worlds. This fall I'll start my PhD in the field as a part-time student, much like James Cain said in the last issue's Letters to the Editor: one day a week. It's probably a long road, but I'm looking forward to it.
Omar Alonso, San Mateo, CA; email@example.com
The Agile Sweet Spot
While it's always nice to be noticed, I fear that the July/August Manager column "Scaling Agile Methods" by Don Reifer, Frank Maurer, and Hakan Erdogmus misrepresented my position on this topic. Naturally, I intended my sound byte "scaling agile methods is the last thing you should do" to be startling, but I also intended it to be precise. I'm not against scaling agile methods, but I think we should try other things first ( http://martinfowler.com/bliki/LargeAgileProjects.html). In particular, we've seen a lot of evidence that large projects often show alarming levels of overstaffing and feature bloat. Dealing with these problems often turns a large project into one that fits nicely into the agile sweet spot.
Martin Fowler, Chief scientist, ThoughtWorks; http://martinfowler.com
More Recent References
In the article "On the Declarative Specification of Models" (March/April 2003), the reference to E.R. Gansner et al. on drawing diagrams seems to suppose there are no approaches newer than 1993. See Springer-Verlag's Formal Systems Specification: The RPC-Memory Specification Case Study, 1996, and Graph Drawing: 9th International Symposium, 2001; 1st International Workshop on Visualizing Software for Understanding and Analysis, 2002; and the ACM Symposium on Software Visualization, 2003.
Holger Eichelberger, University of Würzburg; firstname.lastname@example.org