Evaluation of software impact designed for biomedical research: Are we measuring what's meaningful?

ArXiv [Preprint]. 2023 Jun 5:arXiv:2306.03255v1.


Software is vital for the advancement of biology and medicine. Through analysis of usage and impact metrics of software, developers can help determine user and community engagement. These metrics can be used to justify additional funding, encourage additional use, and identify unanticipated use cases. Such analyses can help define improvement areas and assist with managing project resources. However, there are challenges associated with assessing usage and impact, many of which vary widely depending on the type of software being evaluated. These challenges involve issues of distorted, exaggerated, understated, or misleading metrics, as well as ethical and security concerns. More attention to the nuances, challenges, and considerations involved in capturing impact across the diverse spectrum of biological software is needed. Furthermore, some tools may be especially beneficial to a small audience, yet may not have comparatively compelling metrics of high usage. Although some principles are generally applicable, there is not a single perfect metric or approach to effectively evaluate a software tool's impact, as this depends on aspects unique to each tool, how it is used, and how one wishes to evaluate engagement. We propose more broadly applicable guidelines (such as infrastructure that supports the usage of software and the collection of metrics about usage), as well as strategies for various types of software and resources. We also highlight outstanding issues in the field regarding how communities measure or evaluate software impact. To gain a deeper understanding of the issues hindering software evaluations, as well as to determine what appears to be helpful, we performed a survey of participants involved with scientific software projects for the Informatics Technology for Cancer Research (ITCR) program funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). We also investigated software among this scientific community and others to assess how often infrastructure that supports such evaluations is implemented and how this impacts rates of papers describing usage of the software. We find that although developers recognize the utility of analyzing data related to the impact or usage of their software, they struggle to find the time or funding to support such analyses. We also find that infrastructure such as social media presence, more in-depth documentation, the presence of software health metrics, and clear information on how to contact developers seem to be associated with increased usage rates. Our findings can help scientific software developers make the most out of the evaluations of their software so that they can more fully benefit from such assessments.

Publication types

  • Preprint