August 9, 2009

Free Software in the CS Academy

Category: F/OSS,IP Law,Open Access,Politics — Biella @ 1:52 pm

The world of Free Software is riddled with ironies, or so I like to tell myself, as I am devoting a history chapter that uses the frame of irony to trace the historical rise of this technological domain. One irony (though not entertained in the chapter) has to do with the status of Free Software in the academy: it is pretty weak among CS-ey types and yet Free Software is often identified as a paragon example of the openness and communitarian elements of how academic science is supposed to work. So.. what is exactly going on?

Recently I had the pleasure of discussing this issue a bit with Colin Turner, a professor of Mathematics at University of Ulster who has given this issue a lot of careful thought and is trying to make some changes on the academic side of things. You can read and learn a little more about his them in this thoughtful interview and his blog.

Do you know of any academic programs where FS was nowhere to be found but with some clever or bold initiative it flourished? Thoughts of what can be done to make FS a realistic presence in academic department? Is this perhaps where the future of Free Software advocacy should be headed?


  1. Free Software is widely used in Astrophysical community, where numerical calculations have assumed central role. I’m not aware of how this came to be. But I’ve found that this use of FS usually happens out of necessity. (Clusters are easier to deploy with FS, FS is accessible to students, etc.) Indeed, some students even acknowledge the FS movement in their thesis! People often prefer non-free solutions (compilers, computational suites like Mathematica, etc.) once FS has done its job of providing the base. Strict adherence to FS as a matter of principle is rare.

    Comment by Girish Kulkarni — August 9, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

  2. [...] rest is here: Interprete Free Software in the CS Academy marketing View admin’s Profile      Subscribe via RSS [...]

    Pingback by Interprete Free Software in the CS Academy | Information Technology — August 9, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  3. A bit of a heads up, I’ve posted a long-ish response to my blog syndicated on Planet Ubuntu.

    A few bonus notes:

    My opinion is that public source code access is mostly a quality thing: when you’re an understaffed IT team with huge goals, open source principles can help improve the quality.

    The other thing is, peer reviewed publication in journals is what drives CS research. You’ll note that Andrew Tridgell’s PhD thesis on the incredibly awesome rsync didn’t result in any journal publications or a tenure track position.

    Comment by jldugger — August 10, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  4. Thanks Justin. Interesting post. More very soon!

    Comment by Biella — August 11, 2009 @ 4:49 am

  5. Hmm. Justin’s post really underlines what we were discussing as the need for a peer review mechanism aimed at FOSS.

    I’m more and more convinced that is what will be needed to allow FOSS contributions from computer scientists to be worthwhile for them in career terms as well as for the wider community.

    Comment by Colin Turner — August 11, 2009 @ 5:41 am

  6. In some sense, Computer Science needs source code more than academic IT. Entire fields of CS research are dedicated to software analysis, and nearly all of it assumes access to source code in “the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it.”

    Hence Coverity and Ohloh using OSS to demonstrate their tools, and several boring academic projects I haven’t bothered looking at. CS departments in the past have generally done this via gentlemen’s agreements with industry contacts or their institutional coworkers. It would be advantageous for software analysis research programs in small institutions to promote the production OSS in other areas of their department, in industry, and other CS departments.

    Comment by jldugger — August 11, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

  7. Er, what? I completely refute the premise. I can’t imagine a subject area where open source software is more widely used.

    Virtually every CS undergrad is forced to use Linux, all our compilers are open sourced, or open source alternatives are available, all our IDE’s are open sourced, and virtually every tool used widely in CS academic research is open sourced (with some exceptions like Matlab), including the typesetting engines we write our papers in.

    (Things like Matlab and Mathematica are exceptions: they’re so good at what they do that it’s really worth buying licenses for them.)

    I’ve been involved with several large software projects in academia, and I’m aware of plenty more, and not a single one of them isn’t open sourced. So, where exactly do you get the idea that OSS is somehow missing from CS academia?

    And why oh why does the notion of peer review have to change? Computer scientists aren’t coders with the purpose of reimplementing tools already available commercially!

    Comment by dpm — August 12, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  8. dpm,

    I don’t think that is true across the board. I know it plays a very minor role in two institutions i know of, NYU and Chicago. I am sure there are exceptions but indeed, what would be best was to get some stats from actual schools!

    Comment by Biella — August 14, 2009 @ 4:19 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags):
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> .