“Why do people contribute to the R?” – concolusions from a new PNAS article

tl;dr: People contribute to R for various reasons, which evolves with time. The main reasons appear to be: “fun coding”, personal commitment to the community, interaction with like-minded and/or important people  – leading to higher self-esteem, future job opportunities, a chance to express oneself and enjoyable social inclusion.

From the abstract

One of the cornerstones of the R system for statistical computing is the multitude of packages contributed by numerous package authors. This amount of packages makes an extremely broad range of statistical techniques and other quantitative methods freely available. Thus far, no empirical study has investigated psychological factors that drive authors to participate in the R project. This article presents a study of R package authors, collecting data on different types of participation (number of packages, participation in mailing lists, participation in conferences), three psychological scales (types of motivation, psychological values, and work design characteristics), and various socio-demographic factors. The data are analyzed using item response models and subsequent generalized linear models, showing that the most important determinants for participation are a hybrid form of motivation and the social characteristics of the work design. Other factors are found to have less impact or influence only specific aspects of participation.

Summary of results

R developers, statisticians, and psychologists from Harvard University, University of Vienna, WU Vienna University of Economics, and University of Innsbruck empirically studied psychosocial drivers of participation of R package authors. Through an online survey they collected data from 1,448 package authors. The questionnaire included psychometric scales (types of motivation, psychological values, work design), sociodemografic variables related to the work on R, and three participation measures (number of packages, participation in mailing lists, participation in conferences).


The data were analyzed using item response models and subsequently generalized linear models (logistic regressions, negative-binomial regression) with SIMEX corrected parameters.

The analysis reveals that the most important determinants for participation are a hybrid form of motivation and the social characteristics of the work design. Hybrid motivation acknowledges that motivation is a complex continuum of intrinsic, extrinsic, and internalized extrinsic motives.
Motives evolve over time, as task characteristics shift from need-driven problem solving to mundane maintenance tasks within the R community.
For instance, motivation can evolve from pure “fun coding” towards a personal commitment with associated higher responsibilities within the community. The community itself provides a social work environment with high degrees of interaction, two facets of which are strong motivators. First, interaction with persons perceived as important increases one’s own reputation (self-esteem, future job opportunities, etc.) Second, interaction with alike minded persons (i.e., interested in solving statistical problems) creates opportunities to express oneself and enjoy social inclusion.

The findings do not substantiate the commonly held perception that people develop packages out of purely altruistic motives. It is also notable that in most cases package development is undertaken as part of an individual’s research, which is paid by an (academic) institution, rather than uncompensated developments that cut into leisure time.

Full paper (behind PNAS’s paywall for now) is available here:

Mair, P., Hofmann, E., Gruber, K., Hatzinger, R., Zeileis, A., and Hornik, K. (2015). Motivation, values, and work design as drivers of participation in the R
open source project for statistical computing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(48), 14788-14792


Open source and money – why paying R developers might not always help the project

This post can be summed up by one two sentences: We can’t buy love.” “Starting to pay for love could make it disappear” while at the same time “We need money to live and love”. These two conflicting forces, with relation to open source, are the topic of this post.

This post is directed to the community of R users but is relevant to people of all open source projects. It deals with the question of open source projects and funding. Specifically, should a community of open source developers and users, once it exists, want to start raising/donating money to the main code contributers?

The conflict arises when, on the one side, we intuitively wish to repay the people who have helped us but worry of the implications of behavioral studies that suggests that doing so might destroy the motivation of the developers to continue working without contently getting payed, and that making the shift from doing something for one reason (whatever it is) to doing it for money, might not easily be turned back.
On the other side, developers needs to make a (good) living, and we (as a community) should strive for them to be well payed.
How can these two be reconciled?

This article won’t offer a decisive conclusions – and my hope is to invite discussion on the matter (from both amatures and professionals in the field of open source and behavioral economics) so to give more ideas for people to base their opinions on.

Update: this post was substantially updated from it’s original version, thanks to responses both in the comments, and especially in the e-mails. I apologies for writing a post that had needed so many corrections, and at the same time I am grateful for all the people who took the time to shed light in places where I was wrong.

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Motivation: R has issues – how do we get them fixed?

In the past two weeks there has been a raging debate regarding the future of R (hint: “what is R“). Without going deeper into the topic (I already wrote about it here, where you too can go and respond), I’ll sum up the issue with a quote from Ross Ihaka (one of the two founders of R) who recently wrote:

I’ve been worried for some time that R isn’t going to provide the base that we’re going to need for statistical computation in the future. (It may well be that the future is already upon us.) There are certainly efficiency problems (speed and memory use), but there are more fundamental issues too. Some of these were inherited from S and some are peculiar to R.

After this, several discussion threads where started around the web (for example: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 ,5, 6 ), but then a comment was made in the R-help mailing list by Jaroslaw Piskorski who wrote:

A few days ago Tal Galili posted a message about some controversies concerning the future of R. Having read the discussions, especially those following Ross Ihaka’s post, I have come to the conclusion, that, as usual, the problem is money. I doubt there would be discussions about dropping R in its present form if the R-Foundation were properly funded and could hire computer scientists, programmers and statisticians. If a commercial company is able to provide big-database and multicore solutions, then so would a properly founded R-Foundation.

To which my response is that: I strongly disagree with this statement..
That is, I do agree that money could help with things. It could be that money could be a part of the solution. But I doubt that the core of this problem is money. Nor that it would be solved if we could only now hire “computer scientists, programmers and statisticians” (although that could be part of the solution).

And the reason I am doubtful stems from two sources:

Continue reading “Open source and money – why paying R developers might not always help the project”

The "Future of Open Source" Survey – an R user's thoughts and conclusions

Over a month ago, David Smith published a call for people to participate in the “Future of Open Source” Survey. 550 people (and me) took the survey, and today I got an e-mail with the news that the 2010 survey results are analysed and where published in the “Future.Of.Open.Source blog” In the following (38 slides) presentation:

I would like to thank Bryan House and anyone else who took part in making this survey, analyzing and publishing it’s results.

The presentation has left me with some thoughts and conclusions, I would like to share with you here.

Continue reading “The "Future of Open Source" Survey – an R user's thoughts and conclusions”