It was an interesting couple of days at the OSS2009 conference. I presented the FLOSS marketplace paper as part of the PhD consortium and found the feedback to be very constructive. My goal was to get feedback on the validity of measures I am using to test my theories, and was able to get some valuable insights.
Being trained in quantitative methods and a positivists philosophy, my inclination was to build generalizable theories about FLOSS communities and attempt to falsify them. Which explains why I used theories like TCT and Organizational Information Processing Theory to build my research models with a project unit of analysis. This proved the biggest discussion point in many of my conversations. I managed to gather some useful insights, which I couldn’t have easily gathered on my own. This made me appreciate the value of diversity in research philosophies and methods in the conference.
What was made clear through the discourse was that each FLOSS community has unique processes, members and software. This made me reconsider some of the limitations of my methods, and improve on some of them whenever possible. One particular approach that was suggested to me at the conference was to use a mixed method approach, in which I use qualitative methods on a limited sample of the projects I am observing and show that the nuances in these project follow the predictions and logic of my theory. I could then use quantitative methods to generalize my findings.
To give an example of some of the methodological issues that caught me by surprise, consider the estimate of productivity when measured as lines of code added or removed in a commit. According to Hoffman and Reihle, the unified patch format does not track changed line, but rather, considered any changed line to be a line removed, and line added. A seemingly good estimate of productivity that takes such an issue into account was presented at the conference, which I thought to be valuable.
Getting to meet some FLOSS developers in the conference, and talking with them about research ideas and our work was also enlightening. It was interesting to know what were the important issues and challenges faced by developers which would allow us to make our research more relevant. Furthermore, I found it valuable to get an account from practitioners on how some of the assumptions and theoretical explanations in my work reflects in reality.
Based on the discussions, I got a feeling that the focus of most researchers I have met was on building rich and specialized theories. I felt that generalizable theories were somewhat under represented. I could not tell if this was due to the philosophical background of many of the european researchers I have met, or because the FLOSS phenomenon is not yet well understood and that richness is needed before we can generalize. Personally, I think there is value in generalization and we know enough about at least the software development practices to start building such theories.
I would love to hear the thoughts of whoever reads this post on whether its possible or valuable to build generalizable theories related to the FLOSS phenomenon.