"What I cannot create, I do not understand." – R. Feynman
Jonas Kubilius

Scientists, you too can donate to F/OSS

The idea of Open Science is intimately linked to the free and open source software (F/OSS). Without F/OSS, most of our research would be locked behind copyrights and patents. I am greatly indebted to all those enthusiasts who produce quality software for free. Paradoxically, free software became priceless to me.

Gratitude for many of us does not have to stop there. We have our own grants, which we can use for paying for conference fees, hotels, flights, participants, and, yes, software. Except than when we talk about software, we mean MS Office, MATLAB, and SPSS.

This year though, I’m gonna pay for Python. And I think everybody should consider donating to those F/OSS projects that they find valuable. Not because I care to keep some project alive – there will always be hackers who will keep it going in some form. I’m not here for distributing copious amounts of alms either, certainly not after Atlas Shrugged.

We build this stuff by trusting each other as friends, and that is done on an international level. Theo de Raadt in his email to OpenBSD mailing list | via The magical world of NiPy

This quote summarizes it to me. I simply think this is how the world should work, it is fair and it is my duty to put the money where my mouth is. Here is my list:

  • Python. They would survive without my donations, of course, but then again, that’s not my purpose.
  • iPython. For further development of Notebook.
  • John Hunter Memorial Fund / matplotlib. I absolutely hate matplotlib because it’s so cumbersome and takes a lot of effort to produce something not ugly. It seems to lack the spirit of the Zen of Python as it looks like a rip of MATLAB’s equally corrupt plotting facilities . And yet, I use it extensively.
  • LyX. There used to be this one feature in MS Word that wouldn’t quite let me leave it (or LibreOffice) – Track changes. No other editor seemed to have this crucial collaboration feature. At most, I would find version control type of thing where I could compare the two versions side by side or jump through their history (like in Google Docs), but never explicitly accept or reject changes. Well, turns out LyX, a great almsot LaTeX editor, has it, and so I use MS Word no longer.
  • Inkscape. I can’t stand Inkscape just as much as matplotlib, and yet I created my most beautiful figure to date using it.

I also considered a few others (numpy / scipy, psychopy, pandas, Scribus, Debian, GNU) but they either don’t ask for donations or (in the case of Debian) donations are much more difficult to make.

Now, practically speaking, donations might be difficult to get through the administration. For example, in some places (like KU Leuven), you can only buy software from the dedicated university’s vendor. I absolutely love the idea of asking our IT department if they could buy me a copy of Python. But I am lucky to have an awesome secretary, a liberally-minded prof., and a loving staff behind my FWO scholarship who support me in doing the right thing. I bet many of us could easily use our grants wisely too. Gratefulness is a great habit.