The Journal of Open Source Software (JOSS) is a new take on an idea that’s been gaining some traction over the last few years, that is, to publish papers about software.
On the face of it, writing papers about software is a weird thing to do, especially if there’s a public software repository, documentation and perhaps even a website for users of the software. But writing a papers about software is currently the only sure way for authors to gain career credit as it creates a citable entity1 (a paper) that can be referenced by other authors.
If an author of research software is interested in writing a paper describing their work then there are a number of journals such as Journal of Open Research Software and SoftwareX dedicated to reviewing such papers. In addition, professional societies such as the American Astronomical Society have explicitly stated that software papers are welcome in their journals. In most cases though, submissions to these journals are full-length papers that conflate two things: 1) A description of the software and 2) Some novel research results generated using the software.
» The big problem with software papers & our current credit system
The problem with software papers though is exactly what I wrote earlier: they’re the only sure way for authors to gain career credit2. Or, put differently, they’re a necessary hack for a crappy metrics system. Buckheit & Donoho nailed it in their article about reproducible research when they said:
An article about computational science in a scientific publication is not the scholarship itself, it is merely advertising of the scholarship. The actual scholarship is the complete software development environment and the complete set of instructions which generated the figures.
As academics, it’s important for us to be able to measure the impact of our work, but available tools & metrics are woefully lacking when it comes to tracking research output that doesn’t look like a paper. A 2009 survey of more than 2000 researchers found that > 90% of them consider software important or very important to their work — but even if you’ve followed this GitHub guide for archiving a GitHub repository with Zenodo (and acquired a DOI in the process), citations to your work probably aren’t being counted by the people that matter.
» Embracing the hack
In the long term we should move away from closed/proprietary solutions such as Scopus and Web of Science that primarily track papers and their citations, and instead move to tools that can track things without DOIs such as http://depsy.org. However, that’s the long-term fix, and not the one that helps research software engineers and researchers who are already spending significant amounts of time writing code today.
If software papers are currently the best solution for gaining career credit for software, then shouldn’t we make it as easy as possible to create a software paper? Building high quality software is already a lot of work — what if we could make the process of writing a software paper take less than an hour?
» The Journal of Open Source Software
The Journal of Open Source Software is an open source3 developer-friendly journal for research software packages. It’s designed to make it as easy as possible to create a software paper for your work. If a piece of software is already well documented, then paper preparation (and submission) should take no more than an hour.
The JOSS “paper” is deliberately extremely short and only allowed to include:
- A short abstract describing the high-level functionality of the software (and perhaps a figure)
- A list of the authors of the software (together with their affiliations)
- A list of key references including a link to the software archive
Paper are not allowed to include other things such as descriptions of API functionality, as this should be included in the software documentation. You can see an example of a paper here.
» Oh cool. You’re going to publish a bunch of crappy papers!
Not at all. Remember, software papers are just advertising and JOSS “papers” are essentially just abstracts that point to a software repository. The primary purpose of a JOSS paper is to enable citation credit to be given to authors of research software.
We’re also not going to let just any old software through: JOSS has a rigorous peer review process and a first-class editorial board highly experienced at building (and reviewing) high-quality research software.
» So what’s the review for?
JOSS reviews are designed to improve the software being submitted. Our review process is based upon the tried-and-tested approach taken by the rOpenSci collaboration and happens openly on GitHub. Peer reviews of software papers rarely improve the code submitted4 but they do often improve the documentation, a critical part of making usable software, so our review process is about making sure the pieces are in place for open, (re)usable, well-documented code.
» To the future!
To be clear, we believe software papers are a nasty hack on a broken academic-credit system and that the ideal solution is to move away from papers as the only creditable research product.
None of this helps the students/postdocs/early career researchers of today who have to make very hard decisions about whether to spend time improving the software they’ve written for their research (and others in their community) or whether they should crank out a few papers to make them look like a “productive” researcher.
JOSS exists because we believe that after you’ve done the hard work of writing great software, it shouldn’t take weeks or months to write a paper about your work.
» I’m in, how can I help?
Great! There are two main ways you can help:
- Cite JOSS software papers when they exist for a piece of software you’ve used, and
- Perhaps volunteer to review some stuff for us?
Finally, I’d like to say thanks to all the people who’ve helped shape JOSS into its current form. Thanks to Karthik Ram, Kevin M. Moerman, Dan Katz, and Kyle Niemeyer who’ve helped refine what JOSS is (and isn’t) and all the people who’ve agreed to be on the editorial board.
And, of course, you might like to submit something — take a look at our author guidelines and let us know what you think.