Software: Separating the sheep from the goats
In my opinion - and this is the opinion column - one of this magazine's outstanding features is our reviews section. There are, of course, many outstanding features to this magazine. The features pages present in-depth analyses of the latest trends in specific areas - see for example the article on Laboratory Information Management Systems in this issue - while the products section carries news of the latest releases of products intended to make scientific research easier and faster.
The reviews section, however, really puts scientific software through its paces. Readers can see for themselves from the text of the articles how our reviewers have applied the scientific software they review in the course of real research projects. The strengths and the weaknesses of the software inevitably show through under such circumstances.
However, the more observant may have noticed a slightly unusual feature of our reviews. It is a bit like the famous observation regarding daily newspapers: every single page is full. Just enough news, it would appear, happens every day exactly to fill all the pages of a newspaper, with no white space left over and no sentences cut off in the middle. So in the pages of Scientific Computing World, very few of our reviews conclude that the software was useless and a complete waste of the reviewer's time. Consumer magazines about popular computing do frequently carry reviews of dross, so why do so few of ours?
Of course, just as daily newspapers are selective about what news they choose to print - that's why every page of a daily paper is full - so we are selective about the products we review. It is undue cruelty to reviewers to get them to slog through software that they dislike, and it is a positive hindrance to their own pursuit of science to ask them to employ software that is not up to the task.
However, do you as readers find this policy of criticism by omission serves you as well as you would like? If not, it occurs to me that some readers will have encountered software packages which did not do what was said on the side of the packaging.
So this is a call for some feedback to the editor - both on the service you get from our reviews, and also your personal experience of the best and the worst in scientific software. It's important to have feedback on the best as well as the worst, and any criticism should bear in mind the restrictions of the libel laws! Succinct but informative comments should be emailed to me. I look forward to your comments.
Dr Tom Wilkie