Thursday, November 04, 2010

The real reason (climate) scientists don't want to release their code

Recently there have been three articles that discuss releasing scientific software. Nature had a piece called Computational science: ...Error, the bloggers at RealClimate wrote about Climate code archiving: an open and shut case? and Communications of the ACM has an article entitled Should code be released?.

Nestled in amongst the arguments about the scientific method requiring independent verification is what I believe is the real human motivation. Here's RealClimate:

Very often, novel methodologies applied to one set of data to gain insight can be applied to others as well. And so an individual scientist with such a methodology might understandably feel that providing all the details to make duplication of their type of analysis ‘too simple’ (that is, providing the code rather carefully describing the mathematical algorithm) will undercut their own ability to get future funding to do similar work. There are certainly no shortage of people happy to use someone else’s ideas to analyse data or model output (and in truth, there is no shortage of analyses that need to be done).

And here's Communications of the ACM:

"There are downsides [to releasing code]", says Alan T. DeKok, a former physicist who now serves as CTO of Mancala Networks, a computer security company. "You may look like a fool for publishing something that's blatantly wrong. You may be unable to exploit new 'secret' knowledge and technology if you publish. You may have better-known people market your idea better than you can and be credited with the work. [...]"


1. When the scientist's results are invalidated later by others because the code was blatantly wrong (and they are retracting papers) (see story in the Nature article) they are going to look like much more of a fool. And, frankly, if they think their code is that bad one has to wonder how they can think their paper is worth publishing.

2. The argument about others using your code seems bogus because if everyone released code then there would be (a) an improvement in code quality and (b) an 'all boats rise' situation as others could build on reliable code.

It's tragic that there's a conflict between science and scientific careers. But I think you can put aside the high-minded arguments about the integrity of the scientific method, and see the real reason (climate) scientists don't want to release their code: management of a scientific career and fear of looking foolish.

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