Mozilla wants to debug scientific code

Mozilla wants to step in to solve a problem which is blighting modern science, the boo boos in the maths.

Researcher-built software is an important part of modern science, but now boffins are worried that key research is being blighted by coding errors.

Mozilla has suggested that another peer review of breakthroughs are needed before scientific work is published. Instead of the actual ideas, the peer review should look at the software that is used to reach the conclusion.

In an experiment run by Mozilla Science Lab, software engineers have peered under the bonnet of selected pieces of code from published papers in computational biology.

Mozilla Science Lab director Kaitlin Thaney told Nature magazine that scientific code does not have that comprehensive, off-the-shelf nature that needs to be associated with the way science is presented.

Part of the problem is that the boffins are not getting formal training in coding best practice.

This has caused all sorts of problems. For example, the fraudulent findings used as the basis for clinical trials in 2007 would have been exposed earlier if cancer researcher Anil Potti had been compelled to publish his data and computer code along with his original papers.

It is the junk coding which often prevents other researchers from replicating work.

Mozilla is testing the use of a code review that is routinely used on commercial software before it is released.

Thaney said that the reader looks for everything, from the equivalent of grammar and spelling to the correctness of the logic

It used nine papers from PLoS Computational Biology that were selected by the journal’s editors in August and in particular snippets of code up to 200 lines long that were included in the papers and written in widely used programming languages, such as R, Python and Perl.

The Mozilla engineers have discussed their findings with the papers’ authors, who can now choose what, if anything, to do with the markups.

Apparently some boffins are worried about having software reviewers looking over their shoulder. They might not publish their code because they are worried that it might be mocked.