Researchers receive grant to study the invisible work of maintaining open-source software

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Researchers at the UC Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS), the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Connecticut have been awarded a grant of $138,055 from the Sloan Foundation and the Ford Foundation as part of a broad initiative to investigate the sustainability of digital infrastructures. The grant funds research into the maintenance of open-source software (OSS) projects, particularly focusing on the visible and invisible work that project maintainers do to support their projects and communities, as well as issues of burnout and maintainer sustainability. The research project will be led by BIDS staff ethnographer and principal investigator Stuart Geiger and will be conducted in collaboration with Lilly Irani and Dorothy Howard at UC San Diego, Alexandra Paxton at the University of Connecticut, and Nelle Varoquaux and Chris Holdgraf at UC Berkeley.

Many open-source software projects have become foundational components for many stakeholders and are now widely used behind-the-scenes to support activities across academia, the tech industry, government, journalism, and activism. OSS projects are often initially created by volunteers and provide immense benefits for society, but their maintainers can struggle with how to sustain and support their projects, particularly when widely used in increasingly critical contexts. Most OSS projects are maintained by only a handful of individuals, and community members often talk about how their projects might collapse if only one or two key individuals leave the project. Project leaders and maintainers must do far more than just write code to ensure a project’s long-term success: They resolve conflicts, perform community outreach, write documentation, review others’ code, mentor newcomers, coordinate with other projects, and more. However, many OSS project leaders and maintainers have publicly discussed the effects of burnout as they find themselves doing unexpected and sometimes thankless work.

The one-year research project — The Visible and Invisible Work of Maintaining Open-Source Digital Infrastructure — will study these issues in various software projects, including software libraries, collaboration platforms, and discussion platforms that have come to be used as critical digital infrastructure. The researchers will conduct interviews with project maintainers and contributors from a wide variety of projects, as well as analyze projects’ code repositories and communication platforms. The goal of the research is to better understand what project maintainers do, the challenges they face, and how their work can be better supported and sustained. This research on the invisible work of maintenance will help maintainers, contributors, users, and funders better understand the complexities within such projects, helping set expectations, develop training programs, and formulate evaluations.