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Open source software in medical informatics—why, how and what.
'Open Source' is a 20/40 year old approach to licensing and distributing software that has recently burst into public view. Against conventional wisdom this approach has been wildly successful in the general software market*/probably because the openness lets programmers the world over obtain, critique, use, and build upon the source code without licensing fees. Linux, a UNIX-like operating system, is the best known success. But computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley began the tradition of software sharing in the mid 1970s with BSD UNIX and distributed the major internet network protocols as source code without a fee. Medical informatics has its own history of Open Source distribution: Massachusetts General's COSTAR and the Veterans Administration's VISTA software have been distributed as source code at no cost for decades. Bioinformatics, our sister field, has embraced the Open Source movement and developed rich libraries of open-source software. Open Source has now gained a tiny foothold in health care (OSCAR GEHR, OpenEMed). Medical informatics researchers and funding agencies should support and nurture this movement. In a world where open-source modules were integrated into operational health care systems, informatics researchers would have real world niches into which they could engraft and test their software inventions. This could produce a burst of innovation that would help solve the many problems of the health care system. We at the Regenstrief Institute are doing our part by moving all of our development to the open-source model. # 2002 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.