OpenClinica Community Surpasses 10,000 Members …and oh yeah, what is this open source thing?

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported the OpenClinica project over its relatively brief history. Our community now stands at over 10,000 registered members, representing a 3-fold increase in size over the past two years alone. With members in over 70 countries across six continents, open source is now a central part of the clinical trials software landscape. This is a major accomplishment that we should all be proud of.

While 10,000 may sound like a lot of people, there are still many within the clinical trials industry who do not understand the key concepts of open source. Other software categories have a high prevalence of open source offerings. For instance, when you look at database products (like MySQL, Postgres) and operating systems (like Linux, Android, BSD) there are numerous open source options. Open source is even widely prevalent in the EMR/EHR space, with OpenVista, and over 20 others to choose from.

As OpenClinica ushers the benefits of open source into the clinical trials space, it is instructive to periodically revisit the fundamentals of what exactly open source is.

What is open source?

Open source is a type of free software license–free as in “freedom,” not “beer.”[1] It is not “freeware” and it is not “shareware.” More specifically, open source provides users with[2]:

  • The freedom to run a program, for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how a program works and adapt it to a person’s needs. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so that you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to improve a program and release improvements to the public, so the whole community benefits. (Access to source code is a precondition for this.)

There are numerous open source software licenses based on the above tenants and roughly 60 open source licenses have been approved by the non-profit Open Source Initiative. The OpenClinica Community Edition is distributed under the LGPL open source license.

Open source as a development model

The software development models around open source projects are typically characterized by transparency and collaboration within the community. Opening the product up to the community, allowing anyone to see the good with the bad, helps to quickly uncover problems and identify areas for improvement. Most open source projects will publicly maintain a project roadmap and defect tracking system. Release cycles of active open source projects tend to be early and often.

The result of such openness and transparency is software that is often more reliable and better performing than proprietary, closed alternatives.

What is professional open source?

A symbiotic relationship exists in a health professional open source model between the Community, Company, and Customer.

Some people may think of open source projects as purely volunteer efforts. That is definitely not the case! While governance models vary from project to project, commercial enterprises have helped make open source consumable by ordinary people and businesses. For example, through its OpenClinica Enterprise Edition, Akaza Research provides support and regulatory assurances that help to minimize business risk and ensure success for organizations wishing to use OpenClinica in mission critical settings. Organizations can turn to Akaza to rapidly develop in-house expertise, obtain hosting and expert professional services, and ensure their OpenClinica systems and users are productive and satisfied.

A pervasive trend in software

Open source is everywhere[3]. From the Firefox web browser to the most popular websites, everyone who uses the World Wide Web uses open source. As web-based technology, OpenClinica and the OpenClinica community are direct beneficiaries of numerous other open source projects. Those within the clinical trials space who recognize the significance of open source will be a step ahead of their colleagues.

– Ben Baumann, Co-Founder, Akaza Research, LLC

Want to be an OpenClinica Community Member? Members get free access to OpenClinica software downloads, Issue Tracker, email forums, and the OpenClinica Case Report Form (CRF) Library. Register at http://www.openclinica.org/register.php.

Footnotes:
[1] See Open Source Software Definition, http://www.opensource.org/docs/osd
[2]From the Free Software Foundation: http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html
[3]The SourceForge repository of open source codebases counts over 230,000 OSS projects.

Motivations for Contributing to Open Source

There are currently over 50 different types of open source software licenses approved by the OSI (Open Source Initiative).[1] One consistent theme these licenses share is that they encourage contributions from a community of users and developers. In numerous instances these contributions have proved significant and resulted in the establishment some of the most dominant technologies on the Web today, such as Apache, Linux, PHP, Java, MySQL, and SugarCRM. What are the factors that compel people to contribute to these projects? It seems the motivation comes from two sources: organizations and individual developers.

Open source can be strategic to organizations in several ways. For example, in the clinical research industry, contract research organizations (CROs) might incorporate an open source clinical data management system like OpenClinica into a complete clinical trial solution offered to their customers. Building OpenClinica into part a larger infrastructure may involve adding to or modifying the software in some way. Organizations doing this have a vested interest in contributing their software improvements back to the broader community in order to ensure these enhancements are supported in future distributions of the software. In this way, an organization can leverage a freely available software product for their own, customized purposes while helping to avoid “forking” the software into a unique product they might be stuck maintaining themselves.

While there may be solid business rationale for organization to use and contribute to open source, ultimately the software’s improvements come from individual developers. What are the motivations of individual developers to contribute to an open source project? Obviously, any company requiring its developers to work on an open source product for the company’s own purposes is providing one type of motivation for that developer to contribute. However, many open source projects largely comprise developers who purely volunteer their time outside of their capacity as an employee in a company. History has shown that over time these volunteers have produced some of the most paramount and sustained successes in the software world.

Take, for instance, the Apache project. Apache is the world’s most popular web server that began in 1995 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and today powers nearly 50 percent of all websites worldwide.[2] While the software’s development is the result of an ongoing effort of volunteers, the community has evolved an organizational structure that appears to engender a motivational atmosphere among developers.[3] For example, a study at the University of California run by Il-Horn Hann and colleagues found that the salaries of Apache project contributors correlated positively with the contributor’s rank in the Apache organization and this ranking, therefore, is an indication of a developer’s productivity and market value to an employer.[4]

Many developers may of course contribute to an open source project out of intellectual curiosity or pure altruism. However, it seems the basic principals of economics can help to intensify the desire to contribute. Regardless of any one party’s motivation, it is undeniable that the meritocracy inherent in open source is an intriguing, if not highly effective paradigm for software development that is continuing to have a significant impact on modern computing.


[1] http://www.opensource.org/licenses/alphabetical

[2] http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2008/06/22/june_2008_web_server_survey.html

[3] The not-for-profit Apache Foundation helps to organization and coordinate the Apache open source community.

[4] I-H. Hann et al., “Economic Returns to Open Source Participation: A Panel Data Analysis,” unpublished working paper, Univ. of Southern California.