Which comes first, users or tools?

Greg Wilson and I have been discussing the importance of tools in reproducible research lately. Would more people use reproducibile research practices if tools made doing so more convenient? Would better tools appear if more people cared about reproducibility?

I believe both statements are true, and I believe Greg does as well. However, he and I have different emphases. Greg says “In my experience, most people won’t adopt a programming practice unless there is at least some basic support for it.” I agree, but I think the biggest obstacle to more widespread reproducibility is that few people realize or care that their work is irreproducible. I think that when more people care about reproducibility, some percentage of them will develop and give away tools and we’ll have enough tool support.

We are not in a chicken-and-egg scenario. It’s not as if Greg is saying first we need tools and I’m saying first we need users. We have both tools and users. There are people who care about reproducibility, and some of them have produced tools that make it easier for others to follow. But not many of these people know each other or know about their tools. I hope that the ReproducibleResearch.org web site and this blog will change this.

It help to look at the early history of object oriented programming. Some people were writing object oriented programs before there were (popular) object oriented languages. For example, some people were writing object oriented C before C++ baked support for OO into the language. This was painful, but some pioneers did it. To Greg’s point, the number of programmers writing OO programs took off once there were OO languages with good tool support. To my point, first there were programmers wanting to write OO code; these were the folks who developed the tools and the early adopters of the tools.

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