Open Research Computation (ORC) is a new journal that is dedicated to the discussion of software and services. It prime focus is on the standards to which software is developed, the reproducibility of the results it generates, and the accessibility of the software to analysis, critique and re-use. Cameron Neylon, ORC’s editor-in-chief, describes why he set up the journal and how it will help researchers build better software – a goal that’s shared by the Software Sustainability Institute.
I spend a lot of my time arguing that many of the problems in the research community are caused by journals. We have too many, they are an ineffective means of communicating the important bits of research, and as a filter they are inefficient and misleading. But in December last year, I launched a call for papers for a new journal. How do I reconcile these two statements?
Computation lies at the heart of all modern research. Whether it is the massive scale of LHC data analysis or the use of Excel to graph a small data set. From the hundreds of thousands of web users that contribute to Galaxy Zoo to the solitary chemist reprocessing an NMR spectrum, we rely absolutely on billions of lines of code that we never think to look at. Some of this code is in massive commercial applications used by hundreds of millions of people, well beyond the research community. Sometimes it is a few lines of shell script or Perl that will only ever be used by the one person who wrote it. At both extremes we rely on the code.
We also rely on the people who write, develop, design, test, and deploy this code. In the context of many research communities the rewards for focusing on software development, of becoming the domain expert, are limited. And the cost in terms of time and resources to build software of the highest quality, using the best of modern development techniques, is not repaid in ways that advance a researcher’s career. The bottom line is that researchers need papers to advance, and they need papers in journals that are highly regarded, and (say it softly) have respectable impact factors. I don’t like it. Many others don’t like it. But that is the reality on the ground today, and younger researchers in particular are done a disservice if we pretend it is not the case.
Open Research Computation is a journal that seeks to directly address the issues that computational researchers have. It is, at its heart, a conventional peer reviewed journal dedicated to papers that discuss specific pieces of software or services. A few journals now exist in this space that either publish software articles or have a focus on software. Where ORC will differ is in its intense focus on the standards to which software is developed, the reproducibility of the results it generates, and the accessibility of the software to analysis, critique and re-use.
The submission criteria for ORC Software Articles are stringent. The source code must be available, on an appropriate public repository under an OSI compliant licence. (Other lists of open-source licences are also available.) Running code, in the form of executables, or an instance of a service must be made available. Documentation of the code will be expected to a very high standard, consistent with best practice in the language and research domain, and it must cover all public methods and classes. Similarly code testing must be in place covering as high a code coverage as is practicable, and ideally with a widely used automated test framework. Finally all the claims, use cases, and figures in the paper must have associated with them test data, with examples of both input data and the outputs expected.
The primary consideration for publication in ORC is that your code must be capable of being used, re-purposed, understood, and efficiently built on. Your work must be reproducible. In short, we expect the computational work published in ORC to deliver at the level that is expected in experimental research.
In research we build on the work of those that have gone before. Computational research has always had the potential to deliver on these goals to a level that experimental work will always struggle to, yet to date it has not reliably delivered on that promise. The aim of ORC is to make this promise a reality by providing a venue where computational development work of the highest quality can be shared, and can be celebrated. To provide a venue that will stand for the highest standards in research computation and where developers, whether they see themselves more as software engineers or as researchers who code, will be proud to publish descriptions of their work.
These are ambitious goals and getting the technical details right will be challenging. We have assembled an outstanding editorial board, but we are all human, and we don’t expect to get it all right, first time. We will be doing our testing and development out in the open as we develop the journal and will welcome comments, ideas, and criticisms to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you feel your work doesn’t quite fit the guidelines as I’ve described them above get in touch and we will work with you to get it there. Our aim, at the end of the day is to help the research developer to build better software and to apply better development practice. We can also learn from your experiences and wider ranging review and proposal papers are also welcome.
In the end I was persuaded to start yet another journal only because there was an opportunity to do something extraordinary within that framework. An opportunity to make a real difference to the recognition and quality of research computation. In the way it conducts peer review, manages papers, and makes them available Open Research Computation will be a very ordinary journal. We aim for its impact to be anything but.
Further information at the ORC website.
Cameron Neylon's blog.