Against "contrib"


Posted: 2014-08-11 12:55   |   Source   |  More posts about open source python planetpython

It's pretty common for an open source project to have a "contrib" directory as part of its project structure. This contains useful code donated to the project by outsiders. It seems innocuous. A contrib section, why not?

I don't like contrib. A contrib directory gives the signal that "yes, we carry this source code around, but it's not really part of our project". What does that mean? Why is it even part of your project at all then? Why isn't this code distributed in library form instead? I'd much prefer the project to be smaller instead, as in that case I wouldn't have to worry about the contrib code at all.

Perhaps in the case of your project, placing code in contrib doesn't really mean "it's not really part of our project". Perhaps the code in contrib is meant to be a fully supported part of project's codebase. If so, why use the name "contrib" at all? It doesn't signal anything functional -- it only signals something about origins, which is why people should suspect any claim that it's a fully integral part of the project. Projects, instead of dumping something in contrib, just put that code in its appropriate place and really own it.

Arguments for contrib

One argument for a contrib section is that by placing code there, the tests are automatically run for it each time you run the tests in the core code. This way a project is in a position to fix obvious breakages in this code before release.

There's a problem with this approach: more subtle breakages run the risk of being undetected, and nobody is clearly in charge of guarding against that, because the code isn't really owned by the project or the contributor anymore. It's in this weird contrib half-way house.

Besides, we have plenty of experience as an open source community with developing extension code that lives outside of a project. Making sure extensions don't break and get fixed when they do requires communication between core library authors and extension authors. I think it's mostly an illusion that by placing the code in contrib you could do away with such communication -- if a project really wants to do away with communication, really own the code.

Placing code in contrib is not a substitute for communication.

That's not to say the current infrastructure cannot be improved to help communication. For instance, in the Python world the devpi project is exploring ways to automatically run the tests for dependent projects to see whether you caused any breakage in them.

Another argument for a contrib section has to do with discovery. As a user of your project I can look through contrib for anything useful there. I don't have to go and google for it instead. Of course googling is really easy anyway, but...

If you want to make discovery easy, then add a list of useful extensions to your project to the project's documentation. Many projects with a contrib directory do this anyway. But that already takes care of discovery; no reason to add the code to "contrib".

And again, infrastructure can to help support this -- it is useful to be able to discover what projects depend on a project. Linux package managers generally can tell you this, but I can see how language-specific ecosystems can offer more support for this too. For a Python specific example, it would be useful if PyPI had an easy way to discover all projects that depend on another one.

Effects on contribution

As an open source project developer you should want to attract contributions to your project. When you add code to "contrib", you tell a contributor "your contribution is not a full and equal part of this project". That's not a great way to expand your project's list of core contributors...

And you are a new contributor who wants to improve something in the contrib of a project, who do you even talk to? You might be worried that the project owner will say: sorry, that code is in contrib, I don't care about improving it. Since people are less confident that the project even cares about code in "contrib", that discourages them from trying to contribute to that code

Summary

Don't add code to a "contrib" section of your project. "contrib", paradoxically, can have a chilling effect on contribution. Either maintain that code externally entirely, or make your project really own that code.

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