[R] The hidden costs of GPL software?

John Maindonald john.maindonald at anu.edu.au
Thu Nov 18 22:48:31 CET 2004

The author of the article says nothing about the large
number of hours and weeks that he surely spent learning

There should be attention to the costs that arise from a wrong
or inappropriate analysis, perhaps because the software that
is in use makes it difficult to do anything better, perhaps
because of statistical skill limitations, often with these two
factors working together.  Analyses that misrepresent the
science, or designs and analyses that conspire together to
this end, have serious and costly implications for research.

I've refereed several papers recently, in broadly ecological
fields of endeavour, with seemingly quite reasonable data,
where the mix of author skill and abilities of the package was
clearly not up to the task in hand.  Relative to getting on top
of the statistical issues (for which they will probably end up
getting, as they need to, statistical help), the GUI/noGUI issue
will be a minor consideration, and hours or weeks spent
learning R will be at most a modest consideration.

John Maindonald             email: john.maindonald at anu.edu.au
phone : +61 2 (6125)3473    fax  : +61 2(6125)5549
Centre for Bioinformation Science, Room 1194,
John Dedman Mathematical Sciences Building (Building 27)
Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200.

On 17 Nov 2004, at 10:27 PM, r-help-request at stat.math.ethz.ch wrote:

> From: "Philippe Grosjean" <phgrosjean at sciviews.org>
> Date: 17 November 2004 8:53:28 PM
> To: <r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch>, <r-sig-gui at stat.math.ethz.ch>
> Cc: Subject:
> Hello,
> In the latest 'Scientific Computing World' magazine (issue 78, p. 22), 
> there
> is a review on free statistical software by Felix Grant ("doesn't have 
> to
> pay good money to obtain good statistics software"). As far as I know, 
> this
> is the first time that R is even mentioned in this magazine, given 
> that it
> usually discuss commercial products.
> In this article, the analysis of R is interesting. It is admitted that 
> R is
> a great software with lots of potentials, but: "All in all, R was a 
> good
> lesson in the price that may have to be paid for free software: I 
> spent many
> hours relearning some quite basic things taken for granted in the 
> commercial
> package." Those basic things are releated with data import, obtention 
> of
> basic plots, etc... with a claim for a missing more intuitive GUI in 
> order
> to smooth a little bit the learning curve.
> There are several R GUI projects ongoing, but these are progressing 
> very
> slowly. The main reason is, I believe, that a relatively low number of
> programmers working on R are interested by this field. Most people 
> wanting
> such a GUI are basic user that do not (cannot) contribute... And if 
> they
> eventually become more knowledgeable, they tend to have other 
> interests.
> So, is this analysis correct: are there hidden costs for free software 
> like
> R in the time required to learn it? At least currently, for the people 
> I
> know (biologists, ecologists, oceanographers, ...), this is perfectly 
> true.
> This is even an insurmountable barrier for many of them I know, and 
> they
> have given up (they come back to Statistica, Systat, or S-PLUS using
> exclusively functions they can reach through menus/dialog boxes).
> Of course, the solution is to have a decent GUI for R, but this is a 
> lot of
> work, and I wonder if the intrinsic mechanism of GPL is not working 
> against
> such a development (leading to a very low pool of programmers actively
> involved in the elaboration of such a GUI, in comparison to the very 
> large
> pool of competent developers working on R itself).
> Do not misunderstand me: I don't give up with my GUI project, I am just
> wondering if there is a general, ineluctable mechanism that leads to 
> the
> current R / R GUI situation as it stands,... and consequently to a 
> "general
> rule" that there are indeed most of the time "hidden costs" in free
> software, due to the larger time required to learn it. I am sure there 
> are
> counter-examples, however, my feeling is that, for Linux, Apache, 
> etc... the
> GUI (if there is one) is often a way back in comparison to the 
> potentials in
> the software, leading to a steep learning curve in order to use all 
> these
> features.
> I would be interested by your impressions and ideas on this topic.
> Best regards,
> Philippe Grosjean

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