Code-Based Methods and the Problem of Accessibility

Post provided by Jamie M. Kass, Matthew E. Aiello-Lammens, Bruno Vilela, Robert Muscarella, Cory Merow and Robert P. Anderson

The namesake of our software and founder of the field of biogeography, Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo ©G. W. Beccaloni

The namesake of our software and founder of the field of biogeography, Alfred Russel Wallace. Photo ©G. W. Beccaloni

In ecology, new methods are increasingly being accompanied by code, and sometimes even full command-line software packages (usually in R). This is great, as it makes analyses more reproducible and transparent, which is essential for the development of open science. In an ideal world, code would have informative annotation, generalized functions for multipurpose use, and be written in a legible and consistent manner. After all, the code may be used by ecologists with a wide range of programming experience.

In reality, code is often poorly commented (or not commented at all!), hard to reuse for other projects, and difficult to interpret. To add to that, most code isn’t actively maintained, so users are on their own if they try to commandeer it for new purposes. Further, ecologists with little or no programming knowledge are unlikely to benefit from methods that exist only as poorly documented code. In a positive development, some new methods are accessible through software with graphic user interfaces (GUIs) developed by programmers spending significant time and effort. But too often these end up as tools with flashy controls and insufficient instruction manuals. Continue reading