Please destroy this software after publication. kthxbye.

tl;dr? A while back I wrote that there are three uses of research software: replication, reproduction, and reuse. The world of computational science would be better off if people clearly delineated whether or not they wanted anyone else to reuse their software, and I think it's a massive mistake to expect that everyone's software should be reusable.


A few months back, I reviewed a pretty exciting paper - one I will probably highlight on my blog, when it comes out. The paper outlined a fairly simple concept for comparing sequences and then used that to develop some new ultra-scalable functionality. The theory seemed novel, the computational results were pretty good, and I recommended acceptance (or minor revisions). This was in spite of the fact that the authors stated quite clearly that they had produced largely unusable software.

Other reviewers were not quite so forgiving, however -- one reviewer declined to review the paper until they could run the software on their own data.

This got me thinking - I think I have a reputation as wanting people to release their software in a useful manner, but I've actually shied away from requiring it on several occasions. Here was a situation that was a pretty direct conflict: neat result, with software that was not intended for reuse. Interestingly, I've drawn this line before, although without much personal comment. In my blog post on review criteria for bioinformatics papers, there's nothing there about whether or not the software is reusable - it must just be legally readable and executable. But I'm also pretty loud-mouthed about wanting good quality (or at least better quality) software out there in the bioinformatics world!

So what gives? I felt that the new theory looked pretty awesome, and would be tremendously useful, while the implementation was (as stated) unlikely to be something I (or others) used. So what? Publish!

I think this highlights that there are two different possible goals for bioinformatics papers. One goal is the standard scientific goal: to demonstrate a new method or technique, whether it be mathematical or computational. The other goal is different, and in some ways much harder: to provide a functioning tool for use and reuse. These should have different review standards, and that maybe the authors should be given the opportunity to distinguish clearly between the two goals.

There's actually a lot of commonality between what I would request of the software from either kind of paper, a technique paper or a tool paper.

  • Both need to be accessible for download and viewing - otherwise, how can I understand the details of the implementation?
  • Both types of software need to be usable enough to reproduce the results in the paper, in theory (e.g. given sufficient access to compute infrastructure).
  • Both should be in a publicly accessible and archived format, to avoid loss of the software from personal Web sites, etc.
  • Both should show evidence of decent principles of basic software engineering, including the use of version control, some form of testing (albeit unit testing or functional testing or even just defined input with known good output), release/version information, installation/dependency information, and the like.

However, there are some interesting differences. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking that:

  • Crucially, the software from the technique paper would not need to be open source - by the OSI definition, the technique code would not need to be freely modifiable or re-sharable.

    (To be clear, I know of neither any formal (journal) requirements nor ethical requirements that a particular implementation be modifiable or redistributable.)

  • Nor need the software from the technique paper be written in a general way (e.g. to robustly process different formats), or for broader re-use. In particular, this means that documentation and unit/functional tests might be minimal - enough to support replication but no more.

  • The software from the technique paper should be accessible to basic review, but should not be subject to code review on style or implementation - correctness only.

  • Software from a "tools" paper, by contrast, should be held to much higher standards, and be subject to code review (in parts) and examination for documentation and installation and ... oh, heck, just start with the sustainability evaluation checklist at the SSI!

I'm aware that by having such relaxed constraints on technique publication I'm more or less directly contradicting myself in my earlier blog post on automated testing and research software - all of that definitely holds for software that you hope to be reused.

I'm not sure how or where to draw the line here, exactly. It's certainly reasonable to say that software that doesn't have unit tests is likely to be wrong, and therefore unit tests should be required - but, in science, we should never rely on a single study to prove something anyway, so I'm not sure why it matters if software is wrong in some details. This is where the difference between "replicability" and "reproducibility" becomes important. If I can't replicate your computation (at least in theory) then you have no business publishing it; but reproducing it is something that is a much larger task, outside the scope of any given paper.

I want to quote David States, who wrote a comment two years ago on my blog:

Too often, developers work in isolation, and this creates a high risk for code errors and science errors. Good code needs to be accessible and this includes not just sharing of the source code itself but also use of effective style, inclusion of tests and validation procedures and appropriate documentation.

I think I agree - but what's the minimum, here, for a technique paper that is meant to be a demonstration of a technique and no more?

One final point: in all of this we should recognize that the current situation is quite poor, in that quite a bit of software is simply inaccessible for replication purposes. (This mirrors my personal experiences in bioinformatics review, too.)

Improving this situation is important, but I think we need to be precise about what the minimim is. I don't think we're going to get very far by insisting that all code be held to high standards; that's a generational exercise (and part of why I'm so bullish on Software Carpentry).

So: what's the minimum necessary for decent science?

--titus

p.s. In case anyone is wondering, I don't think our software really meets my own criteria for tool publication, although it's getting closer.

p.p.s. Drawing this distinction leads in some very good directions for publishers and funding bodies to think about, too. More on that in another blog post, if I get the chance.

p.p.p.s. My 2004 paper (Brown and Callan) has a table that's wrong due to a fencepost error. But it's not seriously wrong. shrug

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