Secret Source Codes Threaten Modern Science

Modern science relies upon researchers sharing their work so that their peers can check and verify success or failure. But most scientists still don’t share one crucial piece of information — the source codes of the computer programs driving much of today’s scientific progress.

Such secrecy comes at a time when many researchers write their own source codes — human-readable instructions for how computer programs do their work — to run simulations and analyze experimental results. Now, a group of scientists is arguing for new standards that require newly published studies to make their source codes available. Otherwise, they say, the scientific method of peer review and reproducing experiments to verify results is basically broken.

“Far too many pieces of code critical to the reproduction, peer-review and extension of scientific results never see the light of day,” said Andrew Morin, a postdoctoral fellow in the structural biology research and computing lab at Harvard University. “As computing becomes an ever larger and more important part of research in every field of science, access to the source code used to generate scientific results is going to become more and more critical.”

Missing source codes mean extra headache for scientists who want to closely follow up on new studies or check for errors. Such unavailability of source codes can also lead to more bad science slipping through the cracks — unreleased and irreproducible codes played a part in a Duke University case that led to study retractions, scientist resignations and canceled clinical drug trials for lung and breast cancer in 2010.

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