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The open source community is nasty and that's just the docs

Survey of ~6,000 contributors also finds widespread harassment, gender imbalance

By Simon Sharwood, 5 Jun 2017

The open source community is nasty in many ways, according to a survey of over 6,000 contributors to open source projects.

The 2017 Open Source Survey was hosted on GitHub, which “collected responses from 5,500 randomly sampled respondents sourced from over 3,800 open source repositories” and then added “over 500 responses from a non-random sample of communities that work on other platforms.” The questionnaire was also made available in Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Russian.

The full data dump is available here.

Interestingly, those behind the survey broke out “negative incidents” into a separate spreadsheet in that trove. That data reveals that 18 per cent of open source contributors have “personally experienced a negative interaction with another user in open source”. Fully half of participants “have witnessed one between other people”.

Most of the negative behaviour is explained as “rudeness”, which has been experienced witnessed by 45 per cent of participants and experienced by 16 per cent. GitHub's summary of the survey says really nasty stuff like “sexual advances, stalking, or doxxing are each encountered by less than five per cent of respondents and experienced by less than two per cent (but cumulatively witnessed by 14%, and experienced by three per cent).” Twenty five per cent of women respondents reported experiencing “language or content that makes them feel unwelcome”, compared to 15 per cent of men.

This stuff has consequences: 21 per cent of those who see negative behaviour bail from projects they were working on.

Open source communities also look a bit uncharitable when it comes to documentation: 93 per cent of respondents bemoan its qualities, but only 60 per cent ever contribute.

But there's lots of upside too. More than half of respondents said that working on open source projects helped them to get their current jobs. The survey also finds that projects that take care to document their work well attract more developers, of both genders. Projects that take steps to make it easy to report antisocial activity also thrive.

GitHub's summarisers think that is important because open source is a sausage factory: just three per cent of those who responded to the survey are women. The summary also suggests that lots of contributors - 26 per cent - are migrants and may therefore not find documentation written by native English speakers easy.

The report makes for interesting reading in light of the fact that the world's most prominent open source developer, Linus Torvalds, says he is “a really unpleasant person” but that any venom he directs to fellow kernel developers is all in the name of better code, rather than personal slurs, as was the case with his sweary rant about punctuation in kernel comments. ®

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