Code Sharing: The Life of Phi

Phi - Hindawi Blog

In the first guest blog post of our new ‘Opening Science’ series, we’ve asked Dr Nicholas Chilton to tell us about his experience in code sharing, and the impact it’s had on his career and research activities. Nicholas is a Ramsay Memorial Fellow at the University of Manchester. His software can be downloaded from www.nfchilton.com.
Contact: @nfchiltonnicholas.chilton@manchester.ac.uk.

It’s not a common occurrence that an undergraduate student creates a piece of software that becomes used by hundreds if not thousands of researchers all over the world, but that’s precisely what happened to me. In 2011, during the final year of my undergraduate chemistry degree at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), I wrote a program called PHI to calculate the magnetic properties of molecules. While it doesn’t provide any earth-shatteringly new approaches, or in fact do much more than hundreds of other codes have before it, there are two simple reasons it has over 5000 downloads and over 300 citations; it’s freely available and it’s user friendly.

“I was determined to make it freely available.”

When I decided that I wanted to understand the magnetic properties of the molecules I was making, all the codes I could find at the time were either ‘in-house’ (read: we’re not actively sharing it), not applicable to the molecules I had, or did not adequately function as claimed. So, with no other option, I decided to write a code myself. It was a steep learning curve, not having programmed anything before, and with only basic undergraduate physics up my sleeve. However, knowing first-hand the frustration of my science being held back by the lack of a suitable computer program, I was determined to make it freely available when I was finished.

True to my conviction, the code was released early 2013, coinciding with my move to The University of Manchester to undertake my PhD studies. After a slow start, word began to get out and the molecular magnetism community started taking notice. It wasn’t long before I gave my first invited tutorial on PHI in 2014 at the Univerisitat de Barcelona, which has since been followed by invited visits and tutorials at CNRS Bordeaux, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Aarhus University, and most recently at the University of Glasgow. These visits have all been catalysts for collaboration and have helped generate a network of close friends and contacts. My recognition due to the impact of PHI has also led to numerous invitations to speak at international conferences and was no small part of winning the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Dalton Young Researcher Award in 2015.

“The benefits of open and collaborative science far outweigh the short-term cost.”

But it’s not all glamour; maintaining an up-to-date and thorough user manual, providing user support via email, and updating the software itself with new features are all crucial yet time consuming tasks. Moreover, these activities do not provide immediate benefits, and thus are hard to justify when a pile of draft manuscripts lie on my desk and when collaborators are knocking at the door, asking for data promised months ago. But upon reflection on the benefits of going open-source — knowing that countless groups across the world, especially those in countries with limited scientific resources, have been able to learn and advance their work using PHI — I would not change a thing, nor will I neglect my users now. The benefits of open and collaborative science far outweigh the short-term cost.

Photo taken by Rachael Chilton. The text in this blog post is by Nicholas Chilton, and is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.