The Types, Roles, and Practices of Documentation in Data Analytics Open Source Software Libraries: A Collaborative Ethnography of Documentation Work

2018 European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work


June 7, 2018
Nancy, France

This talk was the presented at the 2018 European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work in Nancy, France.  It is based on this article in the Journal of CSCW, which won an honourable mention for best paper, and the presentation of the paper won best presentation at the conferece.

Abstract: Computational research and data analytics increasingly relies on complex ecosystems of open source software (OSS) “libraries” – curated collections of reusable code that programmers import to perform a specific task. Software documentation for these libraries is crucial in helping programmers/analysts know what libraries are available and how to use them. Yet documentation for open source software libraries is widely considered low-quality. This article is a collaboration between CSCW researchers and contributors to data analytics OSS libraries, based on ethnographic fieldwork and qualitative interviews. We examine several issues around the formats, practices, and challenges around documentation in these largely volunteer-based projects. There are many different kinds and formats of documentation that exist around such libraries, which play a variety of educational, promotional, and organizational roles. The work behind documentation is similarly multifaceted, including writing, reviewing, maintaining, and organizing documentation. Different aspects of documentation work require contributors to have different sets of skills and overcome various social and technical barriers. Finally, most of our interviewees do not report high levels of intrinsic enjoyment for doing documentation work (compared to writing code). Their motivation is affected by personal and project-specific factors, such as the perceived level of credit for doing documentation work versus more ‘technical’ tasks like adding new features or fixing bugs. In studying documentation work for data analytics OSS libraries, we gain a new window into the changing practices of data-intensive research, as well as help practitioners better understand how to support this often invisible and infrastructural work in their projects.


R. Stuart Geiger

BIDS Alum – Ethnographer

Former BIDS Ethnographer Stuart Geiger is now a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, jointly appointed in the Department of Communication and the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute. At BIDS, as an ethnographer of science and technology, he studied the infrastructures and institutions that support the production of knowledge. He launched the Best Practices in Data Science discussion group in 2019, having been one of the original members of the MSDSE Data Science Studies Working Group. Previously, his work on Wikipedia focused on the community of volunteer editors who produce and maintain an open encyclopedia. He also studied distributed scientific research networks and projects, including the Long-Term Ecological Research Network and the Open Science Grid. In Wikipedia and scientific research, he studied topics including newcomer socialization, community governance, specialization and professionalization, quality control and verification, cooperation and conflict, the roles of support staff and technicians, and diversity and inclusion. And, as these communities are made possible through software systems, he studied how the design of software tools and systems intersect with all of these issues.  He received an undergraduate degree at UT Austin, and an MA in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University, where he began empirically studying communities using qualitative and ethnographic methods.  As part of receiving his PhD from the UC Berkeley School of Information, he worked with anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, organizational and management scholars, designers, and computer scientists.