Open-Source Software in the Sciences (OSSS) is computer software that is distributed with a source code that anyone can use, study, or modify. This allows for collaboration and modification among users and developers. A well-known example of open-source software is Mozilla Firefox. Jason Swarts, the author of “Open-Source Software in the Sciences: The Challenge of User Support” turned to online user communities to conduct his research with a goal to inform other technical communicators how they can better support open-source projects.
“One of the distinct advantages of OSSS is its plasticity and adaptability to the specialized needs of its users. The software has room to be adapted and to fill niches that commercial software cannot” (84). With this adaptability, however, comes great responsibility. There must be a great deal of trust between software developers and the results produced with OSSS. This is important to tecnical communicators because better documentation such as user manuals is needed.
“Shifts toward open-source software development have created both new user bases and new learning needs to which technical communicators must respond” (61). Out of the three main problem areas of OSSS (learnability, transparency, and usability), learnability and usability are two areas where we as technical communicators can help the most. When it comes to learnability issues of OSSS, there is often a lack of good user manuals available. Similar to learnability, developers often don’t think about usability to the extent that a technical communicator would.
It is evident that OSSS developers need more support on the communication side of things. The author’s proposed solution for this is to have technical communicators work with software developers from the beginning stages of development, because although support forums do exist for OSSS users, they are only helpful to a portion of the OSSS community. For others, the lack of transparency on these forums only adds to their confusion. Working with OSSS developers would be great for anyone looking to learn a unique skill in this ever-evolving field. If you want to see what that might look like, this article is a good place to start.
Open-Source Software in the Sciences: The Challenge of User Support, by Jason Swarts
Viewpoint Written by Jonna Sharp, Texas State University
Edited by Grace Larner, Texas State University