Best Practices for Scientific Computing
Greg Wilson , D. A. Aruliah, C. Titus Brown, Neil P. Chue Hong, Matt Davis, Richard T. Guy, Steven H. D. Haddock, Kathryn D. Huff, Ian M. Mitchell, Mark D. Plumbley, Ben Waugh, Ethan P. White, Paul Wilson
Published: January 7, 2014DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001745
Citation: Wilson G, Aruliah DA, Brown CT, Chue Hong NP, Davis M, Guy RT, et al. (2014) Best Practices for Scientific Computing. PLoS Biol 12(1): e1001745. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001745
Academic Editor: Jonathan A. Eisen, University of California Davis, United States of America
Published: January 7, 2014
Copyright: © 2014 Wilson et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: Neil Chue Hong was supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Grant EP/H043160/1 for the UK Software Sustainability Institute. Ian M. Mitchell was supported by NSERC Discovery Grant #298211. Mark Plumbley was supported by EPSRC through a Leadership Fellowship (EP/G007144/1) and a grant (EP/H043101/1) for SoundSoftware.ac.uk. Ethan White was supported by a CAREER grant from the US National Science Foundation (DEB 0953694). Greg Wilson was supported by a grant from the Sloan Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The lead author (GVW) is involved in a pilot study of code review in scientific computing with PLOS Computational Biology.
Scientists spend an increasing amount of time building and using software. However, most scientists are never taught how to do this efficiently. As a result, many are unaware of tools and practices that would allow them to write more reliable and maintainable code with less effort. We describe a set of best practices for scientific software development that have solid foundations in research and experience, and that improve scientists' productivity and the reliability of their software.
Software is as important to modern scientific research as telescopes and test tubes. From groups that work exclusively on computational problems, to traditional laboratory and field scientists, more and more of the daily operation of science revolves around developing new algorithms, managing and analyzing the large amounts of data that are generated in single research projects, combining disparate datasets to assess synthetic problems, and other computational tasks.
Scientists typically develop their own software for these purposes because doing so requires substantial domain-specific knowledge. As a result, recent studies have found that scientists typically spend 30% or more of their time developing software ,. However, 90% or more of them are primarily self-taught ,, and therefore lack exposure to basic software development practices such as writing maintainable code, using version control and issue trackers, code reviews, unit testing, and task automation.
We believe that software is just another kind of experimental apparatus  and should be built, checked, and used as carefully as any physical apparatus. However, while most scientists are careful to validate their laboratory and field equipment, most do not know how reliable their software is ,. This can lead to serious errors impacting the central conclusions of published research : recent high-profile retractions, technical comments, and corrections because of errors in computational methods include papers in Science ,, PNAS , the Journal of Molecular Biology , Ecology Letters ,, the Journal of Mammalogy , Journal of the American College of Cardiology , Hypertension , and The American Economic Review .
In addition, because software is often used for more than a single project, and is often reused by other scientists, computing errors can have disproportionate impacts on the scientific process. This type of cascading impact caused several prominent retractions when an error from another group's code was not discovered until after publication . As with bench experiments, not everything must be done to the most exacting standards; however, scientists need to be aware of best practices both to improve their own approaches and for reviewing computational work by others.
This paper describes a set of practices that are easy to adopt and have proven effective in many research settings. Our recommendations are based on several decades of collective experience both building scientific software and teaching computing to scientists ,, reports from many other groups –, guidelines for commercial and open source software development ,, and on empirical studies of scientific computing – and software development in general (summarized in ). None of these practices will guarantee efficient, error-free software development, but used in concert they will reduce the number of errors in scientific software, make it easier to reuse, and save the authors of the software time and effort that can used for focusing on the underlying scientific questions.
Our practices are summarized in Box 1; labels in the main text such as “(1a)” refer to items in that summary. For reasons of space, we do not discuss the equally important (but independent) issues of reproducible research, publication and citation of code and data, and open science. We do believe, however, that all of these will be much easier to implement if scientists have the skills we describe.
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