implementing reproducible research [short book review]
As promised, I got back to this book, Implementing reproducible research (after the pigeons had their say). I looked at it this morning while monitoring my students taking their last-chance R exam (definitely last chance as my undergraduate R course is not reconoduced next year). The book is in fact an edited collection of papers on tools, principles, and platforms around the theme of reproducible research. It obviously links with other themes like open access, open data, and open software. All positive directions that need more active support from the scientific community. In particular the solutions advocated through this volume are mostly Linux-based. Among the tools described in the first chapter, knitr appears as an alternative to sweave. I used the later a while ago and while I like its philosophy. it does not extend to situations where the R code within takes too long to run… (Or maybe I did not invest enough time to grasp the entire spectrum of sweave.) Note that, even though the book is part of the R Series of CRC Press, many chapters are unrelated to R. And even more [unrelated] to statistics.
This limitation is somewhat my difficulty with [adhering to] the global message proposed by the book. It is great to construct such tools that monitor and archive successive versions of code and research, as anyone can trace back the research steps conducting to the published result(s). Using some of the platforms covered by the book establishes for instance a superb documentation principle, going much further than just providing an “easy” verification tool against fraudulent experiments. The notion of a super-wiki where notes and preliminary versions and calculations (and dead ends and failures) would be preserved for open access is just as great. However this type of research processing and discipline takes time and space and human investment, i.e. resources that are sparse and costly. Complex studies may involve enormous amounts of data and, neglecting the notions of confidentiality and privacy, the cost of storing such amounts is significant. Similarly for experiments that require days and weeks of huge clusters. I thus wonder where those resources would be found (journals, universities, high tech companies, …?) for the principle to hold in full generality and how transient they could prove. One cannot expect the research time to garantee availability of those meta-documents for remote time horizons. Just as a biased illustration, checking the available Bayes’ notebooks meant going to a remote part of London at a specific time and with a preliminary appointment. Those notebooks are not available on line for free. But for how long?
“So far, Bob has been using Charlie’s old computer, using Ubuntu 10.04. The next day, he is excited to find the new computer Alice has ordered for him has arrived. He installs Ubuntu 12.04” A. Davison et al.
Putting their principles into practice, the authors of Implementing reproducible research have made all chapters available for free on the Open Science Framework. I thus encourage anyone interesting in those principles (and who would not be?!) to peruse the chapters and see how they can benefit from and contribute to open and reproducible research.