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Can Five for the Future Fund WordPress Research?

Many of the big companies in tech have a practice of issuing annual Calls for Proposals for research into key questions relevant to their industry and the toughest challenges they face. Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Amazon all sponsor research awards and academic programs. 

Why not WordPress?

Context: Why We Need Research to Answer Our Hardest Questions

Most open-source software (OSS) projects suffer from sustainability issues that could affect their long-term future survival and/or impact many other projects that are built on top of them. 

As with any shared resource, OSS has a participation-inequality problem where participants can benefit from others’ contributions even if they do not contribute themselves, but if nobody cooperates the community loses as a whole. This “volunteer’s dilemma” is similar to the well-known concept of the tragedy of the commons.

Following a Community-wide Call for Proposals that generates many well-defined, actionable research ideas, we could pursue the resources needed to make the research studies a reality.

The more critical the project, the more we should all be concerned about its future. Today, WordPress and a number of well-known WordPress plugins are indeed critical projects in a global context where big Tech companies and national governments are taking a deeper interest in their security.

Thanks to initiatives like Five for the Future, WordPress (core) has a significant number of paid contributors so it is in a better situation than many other projects, but this doesn’t mean we are safe or that we could not advance faster if we were able to attract (and retain!) more contributors in the WordPress ecosystem.

There are many strategies we could borrow from other communities, but each community is different we cannot just copy and paste their solutions. No single solution has had spectacular success on its own anyway; in fact, OSS sustainability is an important ongoing research area because there are no definitive solutions. 

We need to first agree on what (sub)challenges we consider the most relevant one/s, what resources are available to address those challenges, and how we want to allocate these resources. 

Call for Proposals: What Are the Most Important Questions to Ask?

Let’s look at some (overlapping) topics I’d like to see discussed/analyzed in the coming year and beyond. The questions below target different dimensions of the WordPress community, and many of them are inspired by some of the research I’ve seen or done in software analytics conferences and journals like OSS, MSR, or EMSE

  • Scope: What should we be most concerned about?  
    • Only with WordPress itself?
    • The WordPress ecosystem of plugins, themes, blocks, etc.?
    • The libraries that WordPress uses internally?
  • Onboarding New Members: How can we attract more contributors?
    • Would moving development to GitHub lower the barrier to entry? (Especially for occasional contributors who will not install Subversion just to make a small contribution.)
    • Are we able to attract JavaScript people? (We are probably better at attracting PHP people.)
    • How can we best attract non-coding contributors? (Who are clearly important in any OSS project.)
    • What is the best strategy to help people who would be interested in contributing? (E.g., mentoring, “first-bug” labels, bug bounties, reaching out to specific communities where we think there could be interested people.)
  • Contributors: How can we keep new members and help them grow?
    • How to turn new members into regular contributors? 
    • Why do some leave?
    • What benefits can we give regular contributors (e.g. visibility) for contributing?
    • How do we reward contributors? (For sure, not based on the number of commits. We should investigate more complex models using tools like SourceCred.)
    • How do we redirect contributors to the areas that require more work? (I can tell you this will not happen naturally, so we need to gently push people to work where we need them.)
    • Could bots be a useful tool to help contributors focus on the important and creative tasks?
  • Community Analysis
    • Volunteers and Paid Contributors: We need clear numbers informing the ratio between paid and unpaid volunteers, and where those “paid” ones come from if we want to make sure the companies sponsoring the work get also the credit.
    • Leader Identification: Who are the unsung heroes of each WordPress component, i.e. those who are always commenting on threads regarding that component and whose opinion is usually accepted? If we identify them, we could somehow use them as leaders in that area.
    • Governance Model: How do we manage the contributions? Is it fair? Is it fast? Is it encouraging people to contribute more? Less? “Who decides what and when” is an important influence (or barrier) for potential new contributors.
    • Transparency: Is the governance model explicit enough? Do only those “inside” really know “how things work?”
    • Toxicity/Quality of Conversations: Are our discussions threads friendly enough? Are new opinions heard or immediately shut down? Is the code of conduct enforced?
    • Diversity Analysis: Is our community diverse enough?
    • Temporal Analysis: We cannot rely on a static picture of dynamic community processes; many of the questions above need to be analyzed over time to detect trends.

Resources and Allocation: How Would Proposals Be Funded and Executed?

Following a Community-wide Call for Proposals that generates many well-defined, actionable research ideas, we could pursue the resources needed to make the research studies a reality.

For example:

  • Research contributions could be part of the Five for the Future program so companies can decide to contribute by sponsoring researchers alongside other types of contributions.
  • We could start with a simpler process where either companies themselves choose and sponsor a research team, or a new “WordPress research committee” channels funding to a specific research team. (This would be the same as existing company-sponsored individual contributors.)
  • If we see a WordPress research initiative grow, we could move to a more “formal” model (under the WordPress foundation perhaps) where we ask teams to submit proposals (that fit in the challenges we choose for that year) — and then we choose projects based on a number of standard criteria for evaluating scientific proposals.

We Want Your Feedback!

Do you have ideas for a WordPress research project? Do you have the capacity to fund or perform research?

We'd like your considered response to this proposal in Post Status Slack, if you're a Post Status member. You can also get in touch with Jordi there and through his contact information below.

If you'd like to get in touch with the Post Status team with a proposal of your own for the WordPress community, we welcome all thoughtful submissions.

Jordi Cabot

Jordi Cabot is currently an ICREA Research Professor at the Interdisciplinary Internet Institute (IN3), a research center of the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Barcelona where he leads the SOM research team for “Systems, Software and Models.”

Jordi can be reached in Post Status Slack or at jordicabot.com and jordi.cabot@icrea.cat.

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