Why aren't more researchers using open source?

Why aren't more researchers using open source?

Academic researchers would benefit by ditching their expensive, slow, and non-specific commercial software for open source versions.

Why aren't more researchers using open source?
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Academic researchers depend on a variety of highly specialized software to power their studies. The commercial software options in common use are expensive; either investigators must purchase a large number of licenses for common applications like data analysis tools, or they have to buy costly single licenses for specialized software, such as an application for a specific laboratory device.

It's surprising, then, that so few researchers are using open source instead of expensive commercial software. Not only does open source produce cost savings over commercial options—money that can be invested back into research—it also provides researchers the opportunity to develop software for their own specific needs, then share it with others doing similar work.

Assume your research group invents a new technology or methodology to advance your field and publishes your findings in a notable journal. In order for commercial software to be developed for your technology, someone in a software company has to read your paper, trigger the development process, and bring the software to market maturity. Depending on the project's complexity, this could take several years.

You can shortcut the process significantly if you develop the software at the same time you develop your new technology. Because you don't have to wait for commercial software to come to market, you can start widely using your innovation immediately after (or even before, in some cases) your research is published. And, once data is available on how many people are using your open source software, commercial software vendors can determine whether it's a viable market for them, then view your source code to learn the requirements for developing their own version.

Here's a more specific example. Surface chemists use a pendant drop tensiometer to determine the surface tension of fluids (the reason why water clusters into drops and insects can stride over it). For research and industrial applications, it is important to know the surface tension of specific fluids, since it influences the ability to form emulsions, foams, etc. Many pendant drop tensiometer vendors also provide commercial software that analyzes the shape of droplets to determine surface tension. Our research group developed an open source software called OpenCapsule that not only performs the same kind of analysis, it also determines the elastic properties of a membrane coating a droplet, which was impossible before. OpenCapsule provides researchers a new, free, GPL-licensed software tool to characterize elastic nanomaterials. We're hoping that new contributors will help us optimize OpenCapsule and push the project further.

Open source offers many advantages for researchers, including ready-to-use, cutting-edge technology; cost savings; and faster development. No commercial vendor can know your needs as well as you know them yourself, so why not leverage your own research and become independent from software vendors by developing your own open source software?


About the author

Jonas Hegemann - Jonas Hegemann is a physicist from Germany. Since 2013 he has been working on his PhD project in theoretical biophysics including computer simulations in the context of cell biology and video analyses of elastic materials.