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Code Detanglers

Some businesses have popped up to transform messy code used in academia for commercial use, The Economist reports.

A lot of computer code that's generated in academia is written in obsolete programming languages and has been tweaked by numerous graduate students and postdocs over the years and may not be well annotated. And for the purposes there, The Economist says that may be enough.

But some of these codes have commercial interest to outside companies or startups coming out of the lab and, for them, disorderly code is not acceptable.

A few companies, The Economist reports, have stepped into to straighten out such 'spaghetti code.' One company, Oxford Computer Consultants, tells The Economist that it has untangled code written partially in Fortran and partially in Matlab.

The first step is to get the program to run on their own computers and generate the same results as those that the developer gets, Reynold Greenlaw tells The Economist, adding that it's an obvious, but not always easy step. Once that's done, then all the different parts of the code can be tested, translated into a newer computing language, and otherwise updated, he adds.

While The Economist says this wouldn't be necessary if academics were better at writing coding, it notes that they have few incentives to do so. "[F]or most academics writing software is merely a means to an end rather than an end in itself," it says. "Those who do put effort into producing good code risk being seen by their colleagues as time-wasters."

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