Open Source Is Not Growing Anymore
Written by Mike James   
Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Open source, we all love it when it comes to using it, but not so much when it comes to contributing to it. How often have you wished for an improvement or a bug fix, but resisted the call to roll up your own sleeves and do the job? It seems the production side of open source has a problem and open source isn't growing anymore.

The latest research on the phenomena comes from Michael Dorner, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Maximilian Capraro, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen and Ann Barcomb, University of Calgary and Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen, and looks at the patterns of behavior for over 224,000 open source projects over 25 years.  Previously it had been found that Open Source grew exponentially with respect to lines of code and number of projects. The current study found this to be true, but only up to 2012 for lines of code and until 2011 for project numbers.

Now at this point you are no doubt saying that exponential growth isn't sustainable in reality; and I would agree. Exponential growth is nearly always a precursor to some more gentle and physically possible expansion. In this case, however, the situation isn't just a move to sub-exponetial growth; things seem to be slowing down.


You can see that after 2015 the lines of code stop increasing at all - hence "Open Source isn't growing". This is supported by the drop in the number of commits over time. After 2015 commits go into free fall and are back to their 2007 levels during exponential growth.

More depressing is the next finding:

"The vast majority of open source projects are abandoned; they have never received a contribution again until the end of measurement or their deletion."


The loss of inactive projects at the end of the time period is an artifact caused by considering any inactive project that hasn't had a contribution by the end of the study as abandoned.

The final proof that there is a decline is in the contributor figures

Although growing exponentially until March 2010 and reaching its peak in March 2013 with 107,915 contributors, the number of open source contributors has, as of 2018, decreased to the level of 2008.

So we can look back onto the halcyon period, starting in about 2000 and ending in 2010 or thereabouts, when Open Source was growing exponentially on a number of measures.

So why has Open Source not only stopped growing exponentially but actually declined? The paper has some suggestions:

  • A decrease in developers willing to volunteer, and no corresponding increase in paid development work
  • The shift from volunteer to paid contributions reducing the effective time for contributing for each participant, due to company resource management
  • An increase in episodic participation, with more people preferring to volunteer less
  • A generational shift (the mean age of contributors in 2005 was 31, and in 2017 it was 30) from collective to reflexive volunteering, perhaps in response to the growing role of open source participation in career development
  • Increasing code complexity requiring skills fewer developers possess, and discouraging newcomers 
  • A decreased quality of contributions and, therefore, a lower acceptance rate of contributions and an overload for reviewers and committers

Do any of these ring true?

As a lapsed open source contributor I can relate to some of these suggestions, but recently (in the timeframe of the reported decline) I've considered contributing to three projects that I have been using very heavily and hence got to know very well, and have modified the source code.

What stopped me from joining in?

The first case was an Apache project and the governance issues seemed more complex and overwhelming than the patches I would have proposed. In the second case the project imposed a set of coding styles that I hadn't used in my coding and frankly didn't agree with. The time and effort to put my mods into their canonical format it wasn't worth the boredom. The third project was so badly documented that I couldn't figure out if what I had done was reasonable or not and I received a de-motivating response from the maintainer telling me to figure it out.

Put simply, the days of writing some code, submitting it and then hacking on it in a group seem to be long gone. What we have are ove- regulated projects that have a focus on governance and submitting compliant code that needs no further work from anyone else. Yes it's anecdotal evidence and it needs to be treated as such - perhaps you have other reasons.


More Information

Quo Vadis, Open Source? The Limits of Open Source Growth

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 19 August 2020 )