Open Source Contributors - Payment and Other Motivation
Written by Janet Swift   
Monday, 14 December 2020

A new report from the Linux Foundation which summarizes the results of a survey of free/open source software (FOSS) developers in 2020 sheds light on who contributes to open source projects and what motivates them.


It has been estimated that FOSS constitutes 80-90% of any given piece of modern software, and software is an increasingly vital resource in nearly all industries, in both the public and private sectors. The 2020 FOSS Contributor Survey, a collaboration between the Linux Foundation’s Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII) and the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard (LISH),  aimed to identify how to improve the security and sustainability, of FOSS critical to the global information infrastructure and also went in-depth into "the human side" looking at who the contributors are and why they contribute.

The survey was distributed using two separate methods - invitations were sent to open source projects to create a targeted sample group and the survey was also advertised to the open source community at large  via newsletters, podcasts, video and social media. This two-pronged approach resulted in 1,866 responses to the survey, though many responses were only partially complete — likely due, in part, to the length of the survey and the depth of the questions it asked.

Asked about their current involvement in open source (N =1179) half claimed to contribute on a regular basis and over a third more sporadically.I


Of 853 respondents who provided information about the role they had in regard to current projects maintainers (54%) plus core contributors (12%) accounted for two thirds. 


While the cover of the report shows many young and female faces this isn't in fact the case. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that only 3% of respondents were female, in contrast to 93% being male (N1192). With regard to age, the peak age group for maintainers (dark blue bars) was 35 to 44, although in total the 25 to 34 age group accounted for the largest proportion overall - 37%. Only 10%, under 25, whereas  20% were 45 and older. 2020-FOSS-Age-Gender

Unsurprisingly given the age distribution, the FOSS contributors have long experience in software development. 56% of respondents claimed a software background of between 10 and 25 years with 20 years being the mode (N=1174).  Only 14% said they had no formal training in software development whereas 86% had undergone classes in high school or university, coding boot camps, etc.

One thing that has changed over the time is employer's policies towards involvement in open source projects. In this chart the dark blue bars are for 10 years ago, blue bars for 5 years ago and green bars for Now. The proportion of those freely allowed to contribute to FOSS projects in their free time has increased over time while not being permitted to contribute at all has been all-but eradicated. However there is some uncertainty - 17% of respondents said their current employer does not have a clear policy towards FOSS contribution, while 6% were unsure what the policy is.


What is more, over half (52%) of respondents reported that they receive payment for their FOSS contribution from either their employer or a third party, with payment being most prevalent in the Occasional category, followed by Maintainer.


However, looking into what motivated respondents to contributing to FOSS, payment didn't figure highly. Instead the most frequently chosen responses for the Top 3 Reasons were:

I use this piece of FOSS and needed the specific features/fixes I added 278
I enjoy learning 276
Contributing allows me to fulfill a need for creative, challenging, and/or enjoyable work 222
Since I use FOSS, I feel I should contribute back to it 205
I believe in the mission of FOSS or the particular area I contribute to 184


As the table below shows there were interesting variations in the main motivations between more involved/less involved, paid and unpaid contributors and length of years in FOSS. Needing specific features was most important to paid contributors and those with greater involvement in terms of both role and time, whereas enjoy learning was more often cited by unpaid and occasional contributors and those with shorter involvement. 


The survey also asked respondents how likely they were to contribute to FOSS in the future. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that they were “Extremely Likely” to keep contributing, with the higher the contribution levels being related to a higher likelihood of this response.


More Information

Download Report on the 2020 FOSS Contributor Survey

Related Articles

Open Source Is Not Growing Anymore

Promoting Open Source Software

What Attracts Devs To Open Source

Why Take Part In Open Source?

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 15 December 2020 )