The University of Southampton

Research software experts warn of long-term effects of demonising COVID-19 modelling efforts

Published: 28 May 2020
Academic modelling of the COVID-19 death toll in the UK has provoked heavy criticism

Demonising the researchers who published the death toll modelling for COVID-19 could suppress openness in academia, warn research software leaders at the universities of Southampton and Edinburgh.

Professor Simon Hettrick, Co-Director of Southampton Software Research Group, and Neil Chue Hong believe that the heavy criticism of Professor Neil Ferguson’s virus transmission modelling could discourage openness of future academic software.

Writing in Research Fortnight, the leaders of the Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) urged society to celebrate researchers who publish their code – rather than attack them.

Professor Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London forecast that 250,000 people could die from COVID-19 in the UK without drastic action, contributing to the government’s decision to impose a long-lasting nationwide lockdown.

The model’s influence has triggered intense scrutiny of its code which the researchers say has put Professor Ferguson’s personal and professional life “through the wringer”.

“The affair has seen legitimate scientific concerns and debate mixed up with efforts to undermine the lockdown and deflect responsibility for policy decisions,” they say. “But most of those criticising Ferguson for sharing his code too late probably don’t realise that sharing software at any time is far from the norm in academia.

“Fundamentally, this is because most researchers don’t have the necessary skills, and those who do lack any incentive to invest the necessary time.

“Even those who publish their software have little reason to clean up and document their code for release, and support it afterwards. Researchers are judged on their publications, not the quality of their code. With no incentives, and amid an already busy schedule of research, teaching and administration, time is too precious to expend on software.”

The SSI Director and Deputy Director underline that openness is vital improve the recognition, reproducibility and reusability of research software, however this will not be incentivised through “toxic” behaviour.

“Criticise software by all means, but bear in mind that its author is likely to be under-resourced and their work with software under-appreciated,” they say. “If we attack researchers who take the plunge and make the effort to release their code, we will only drive fewer to publish their code.

“We must accept that trust in research is inexorably tied to trust in software, and use this to lead the research community to adopt better software engineering practices. A good first step would be to applaud researchers who are brave enough to publish their code.”

Articles that may also interest you

Share this article FacebookTwitterWeibo