Promote research through free software

Promote research through free software

Real, actionable knowledge, free software is a way for a research scientist to promote and disseminate their findings in society. This is the path advocated by Danielle Le Berry, a research professor of computer science.

Firefox, OpenOffice, VLC, Ubuntu… Like these few famous examples, free software — those whose license allows everyone to use, modify, and redistribute — often play key roles in our digital ecosystems. We find it on our servers, in our TVs, on our phones, on our computers…Good news: This should go on for a long time. Actually, thanks Law of the Digital Republic for 2016 and The second national plan for open scienceSoftware generated by publicly funded research must be distributed by default under a free license.

It must be said that the academic world and the world of free software are closely related: the GNU operating system project was created by Richard Stallman in 1983, when he was a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Linus Torvald developed the Linux kernel in 1991 when he was a student at the University of Helsinki … It remains a topical topic because many free programs are developed or improved in our laboratories. On February 5, a 1st Prize “Open Science of Free Research Software”, Organized by the Open Science Committee of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, it has provided evidence of this by rewarding ten programs from the French research world, among 129 high-quality applications. Many of these apps were for software developed over 30 years ago!

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Contributing Users

Software is, in a way, “actionable knowledge”. By allowing it to be distributed under a free license, we remove any obstacle to its use, and encourage adoption of this knowledge in the academic world and in society at large. Additionally, in the realm of dematerialized software, such distribution can be done at a very low per unit cost. Thus, the principle of openness by default is an opportunity for further promotion of the activities of our laboratories. This promotion can take many forms: adoption in the community, in contexts different from those for which the program was designed, or even participation in maintenance efforts.

Richard Stallman, a free software activist, at a conference at Lavoire Moderne in Paris in 2011.

In the world of research, software is created to meet a specific need, or as a proof of concept for new scientific developments. However, in the world of free software, users can also be contributors: report bugs, suggest improvements, modify code directly to correct or improve the program. Thus, increasing the visibility of free search software amounts to increasing the number of potential contributors, improving their maintenance and increasing their functional and technical scope. It is thus a source of innovation, by making it possible for software to be used in a context quite different from the one for which it was initially created.

Free software, a community story

All developers, users, and contributors make up the free software community. When the software community becomes important, you have to find a way to organize it and develop its business model. If a small society can be moved by limited means, then a large society requires structuring and allocation of human resources. It is clearly not enough to put the program code on the Internet under a free license for the automatic creation of a community. The program can take time to find its audience. The decision to distribute the software under a free license means taking into account that this software, which has been useful to us, can also be useful to others, and therefore has a means of interacting with its users. From the user’s point of view, software adoption remains a matter of trust: the user considers that the software is doing what it ought to do, and that it has been developed in accordance with the rules of art; The user also hopes to find help if a problem occurs, especially when they encounter an error. In the case of free software, this trust is based in particular on examination of the code itself or interactions with other users or contributors.

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Therefore any development approach must take into account interaction with users and contributors, openness of the development process as well as transparency of program development and governance. The simplest framework is open development, using a forgery (like Github or Gitlab example, for example). These forgeries provide access to the code and manage user feedback and contributions, making it easy to follow its development and participate in its development.

Linux exhibition at La Défense, Paris, May 2011.

Another solution is to integrate an already organized free community (FSF, Apache, Eclipse, OW2). These communities, which benefit from recurrent funding, provide more services (mailing lists, forums, websites), within a more structured framework (governance, development practices, copyright management, etc.). There are two European Free Software Communities that can host research on free software: OW2 and Research@Eclipse. These communities also bring their expertise in managing free software into organizations (see eg for OW2/Eclipse).

Blogs for respect

Promotion through free software must respect the customs and traditions of the free software world. If several members of laboratories know them individually, they should be combined in a more structural way to reduce the effort needed for this type of assessment. In particular, at the laboratory level, it is necessary to simplify the procedure for declaring programs, for preparing distribution strategies for public or institutional fraud, for the promotion of this program using the channels specific to each community (language, domain).

So there is a step to be taken between providing software under a free license within the framework of open science and actively developing it as free software. This fundamental step is the acceptance of interaction with the community, and requires the implementation of the means that allow this. This activity requires special skills that must be developed in laboratories.

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The views, opinions and analyzes published in this section are solely those of their authors. It does not constitute any position of the CNRS.

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