The motivation to work on the open source project

Hello all,
I just passed the mentors training and one of my questions remained to be unanswered.
What is the motivation or the incentive to work on the open-source project?

It’s also related to the question of motivation of the mentee and the commitment to the project.
There are better chances that you will put some effort to make your project open if you know what you are going to have out of it in the first place.

I’m asking because I talked to the open-source project’s contributors. The project might start as a fun idea but in the end, you might face one of the two bad endings:

  1. Very few people will be interested in your project. You will have some positive feedback and then forget about it. The project will be dead.
  2. A lot of people will start using your project and it might be cool in the beginning. But then you will find yourself solving tons of issues that other people have with your project. Work on the bug fixes. And do all of this in your free time. It might be fun for some time. But eventually, you are going to become tired.

Jupyter notebook developers for example have been stretched thin on a bunch of different issues related to their project for years. And they are continuing to do so despite not being paid and despite numerous burnouts. It’s kind of expected from the developers to be making updates, solving issues, and improving the project but in the open-source world, they are often not getting paid for this work.

Ok. Now let’s talk about the good things that the open project might bring to you.

  1. Learning. If you learn something you might be interested in creating some project to practice your knowledge. It’s great if someone can use it as well. It’s not too bad if they don’t.
  2. Make the selling point of your product from your openness. A lot of people are doing this in the hobby electronics market or the software world. But you need to be targeted to sell the product from the very beginning. If you just start with making everything available to everyone for free you might find yourself in trouble trying to do this later.
    … I don’t know. What other rewards are possible? New connections?
    Do you know the team that created the successful open source project and not struggling with working on it for free?

I believe that’s an important topic. And probably there are a lot of discussions already happened. I would appreciate it if someone can link me to the forum thread with the discussion about the rewards of making your project open.

For me, it feels like I know how to make the project open from the Curriculum material
I know how to talk with people to help them make their projects open from the mentors’ training.
But I still don’t have a solid understanding of WHY we should do this.


I often ponder that question. Mine is a belief in open collaboration as a good thing in general; but specially because the benefit is obvious when resources are scarce.

Adding to my previous comment, to me it’s more about what others can have out of it. And, secondly, maybe there is a chance of finding someone somewhere who is interested in collaborating.

That is my (perhaps naive) view of the whole open-collaboration thing. I don’t think it would convince anyone with an individualist idiosyncrasy who is working, for example, in a well-funded lab (other than for openwashing) able to focus only on analysing results.


Hi all,
this is indeed an interesting topic and very cool to have it out in the open, specially in the light of Open Hardware Makers.

So I will try to share some thoughts and links that are probably going to keep the debate going, rather than close it with perfect solution.

in terms of the bad endings you mention:

  1. I guess this one is more related to your internal motivation to work on a project? I mean, if your project is closed and you don’t have motivation to work on it, it will still be dead after a while. And in this case it has zero chance of being useful for anyone, or for picking up “external motivation” in the form of contributors/users/ etc… Another point is that an “open dead project” can still be utilised by someone else? even after you decided to drop it. Here is an interesting piece with with examples of abandoned open projects that got picked by others.

  2. Burn out and lack of support in the open source(OS) scene are indeed recurring problems and have led to serious issues. We can cite “heart bleed” bug as a famous recent one, and we all know first hand how tiring volunteering can be. Therefore more and more people ahve started figuring out ways to monetise and support OS. It is not that money will solve everything, but with money, as a developer I can turn my hobby into income. Or even offload some of the work I would have to do by paying someone else. Examples here include things like “Github contribute” system, Open Collective, Libera Pay, etc… These are just examples of systems that are now in place to allow individuals to easilly receive some form of contribution for their time.

I think in the space of hardware, we also have the advantage of actually produce a physical thing, so even if all plans are open, you can still sell the actual “thing” to people, which is not directly present with software (In principle anyone with a computer can clone an OS repository and starting using the software, for hardware, you can clone designs, documentation, but you still might need soldering skills, specific machinery to print/cut/build etc).

Another important point I think is that the purpose of OHM is to create entry points for people to join a project and contribute. In a way off-loading some of the burden from one individual. This of course only shares the issue among other people. However, coupled with this idea that developers should always be thinking about their projects in long term and where they want to take it, and how to make it sustainable, having others to share tasks allows developers to invest time in things like fund raising, creating a community etc.

I am not familiar with Jupyter notebook developers path from its first start to today, but it seems from here they are finding a way to be sustainable as we can see from sponsors here

For the nice points:

  1. Agreed! learning from open project and while building open projects is a great motivator for doing this. Personally this has brought me a long way in my career. If open projects were not there, I would probably still be pipetting some molecular biology protocols in a company somewhere (which is not bad, just a very different and in my opinion less exciting thing to do with my time).

  2. I think people that are technical and have hardware knnowledge take themselves for granted a lot… and I think this is true for every area of knowledge actually. My point is, you mention that if you are just sharing stuff for free from the beginning, than why would anyone buy anything from you?

    They would buy something because they do not have the needed expertise to simply build it on their own, or they don’t have the time to build it on their own. 3D printers for instance. There are so many plans available online, that there should be zero companies selling 3D printers, since everyone could simply build them. However it is much more efficient to buy one in terms of time and money, if what you want to do is to 3D print and not build 3D printers. Prusa Research is a great example of a company that sells open source printers, are super profitable and also possibly the most cloned model out there… Arduino is another good example of this in the microcontroller space.

Coupled to these points, you could also mention efficiency, that is, collaborating with an existing project is potentially more effective than starting things on your own…

This is getting quite long, but there are many other arguments for doing things in the open, but I would like to leave this as is now so that more people can add their points…

Just as examples, to finish, here are some companies/projects that are “killing it” in the open space:

  • Sparkfun
  • Adafruit
  • OpenTrons
  • Olimex
  • IO Rodeo
  • System76
  • Pine64
  • CERN
  • Safecast
  • Arduino
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Fantastic thread @Dennis_Yaskevich.

From my perspective there are many possible motivations to work openly. The most important thing is not exactly what your motivation is, but that:

  • You have taken the time to really decide what your motivation is
  • You and and any collaborators have been open with each other and the world what your motivation is
  • You make all inevitable judgment calls on openness based on your motivation.

What does this mean in practice?

So from my own perspective, I am a scientist at a university. I am paid by the public to do science, and my speciality is developing instruments. I believe that all work I do is owned by the public, so I do as much of it as possible in the open. This covers our groups flagship project the OpenFlexure Microscope, down to half numerous half-baked projects that went no where. I just believe that doing all my work in the open is a good thing, I see no reason to wait until it “good” or “finished”.

Taking a different perspective on the OpenFlexure Microscope project. Our key aim for that specific project is to eventually enable manufacturers across the world to build the microscope as a medical microscope (an IVDR). For this they will need to understand not just what the design is, but how it was designed and why it was designed that way. This (hopefully) gives them the ability to verify the design, and to convince a regulator that they understand it. This goal dictates how we approach open.

I have talked to others who see “Open” for a finished part of a design as a way to protect against other patenting it before it comes to market. This saves the money of the patent, at the “cost” of not having a monopoly.

Why is this important

To many people announce “open” as a buzz word without a motive. This was particularly rife in the first wave of the pandemic open ventilators. Open sounds good, but without clarity it can become meaningless term thrown around. If it becomes a meaningless term, then being open can be delayed… “we will open source this”. But it is not open until it is open, and unless you have a clear reason for why you wanted it to be open, then you may never reach this point.

There are many reasons to be open, if you know why you want to be open, then let this guide how you go about being open. If you don’t know why you want to be open, then stop and consider this question first.


First of all thanks to everybody who responded. That’s awesome feedback. I expected to just receive the link to the existing long discussion. But seems to me like there is no such discussion on the forum yet. So let’s start one.

@julianstirling, it’s very nice that you mentioned the OpenFlexure Microscope. It seems like many people are using this project. I’m receiving the OpenFlexure Microscope reviews in my YouTube recommendation now. It definitely means something. Looking at your GitLab repository, you have 200+ issues.
Can you share with us how much time this project requires from you and from the team? How do you manage to spend time on it? Can you imagine putting this much effort into this project if you would have a separate 8h/day job? I mean, not a university where this project is probably part of your job.
And another question. Do you think it’s possible to monetize the OpenFlexure Microscope project? For example by selling the assembled microscope as a product. Are you going to do so?

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Hello Andre.
That’s exactly the answer I was waiting for. Thank you.

I must agree that the open dead project is a good thing. You have the learning. Other people have the access to your knowledge. You have almost no additional work. Everybody is happy.

The other thing concerns me a bit more. If your project is getting significant attention you might find yourself in a position where others expect from you the updates, improvements, and bug fixes while not expecting to have to pay for it. I’m happy that we have the OpenFlexure Microscope example here in the discussion. I will try to use this example to examine this concern in a discussion with Julian.

One more issue that I would like to bring up is that it seems to me like the majority of the OSH projects that are available for sale are targeted to the makers market. Lots of cool examples might be found there Crowd Supply.
Sparkfun and Adafruit are targeting makers as well. The OpenTrons and IO Rodeo are awesome, I never heard of them before. They might be exceptions. Olimex seems to be for the makers as well. Pine64 targeted the Linux enthusiasts who essentially are the sort of makers. I have been impressed by System76 (I spend the last few hours researching about them). I also never heard of them before. But it turned out that they are not really developing the hardware. Their software is cool. And they have the schematics available. But their hardware is developed by Clevo and it’s not really open-source. But it’s far better than anything that I’ve seen so far.
The question that I want to raise is why don’t we see the open-source projects that made their way to the general consumer market? Where are the open-source bench power supplies and the open-source microscopes on Amazon? Laptops, kitchen appliances, heaters, HVACs, where are they?
I hope it all exists but I just don’t see well enough. Can you guide me?
In case they don’t exist, I have doubts whether the open-source hardware project might be turned into a for-profit business. It’s possible in this case that OSH is more suitable for learning and making DIY stuff. And I’m not saying that this is bad. But is it true?

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Hello, thank you for your response. I started this discussion to figure out what the open hardware is, and what it isn’t.
One of the radical answers would be that open-source hardware and software is the best way to work for everybody and if you start a new business or just a small project or whatever you do you have to make it open source.
Another radical answer would be that the open-source hardware is cool for education and volunteering. It also might be good for the hobby. But if your project is starting to gain popularity you have a risk that this project might eat all of your free time. And if you don’t ready for it you probably even shouldn’t start it. You might be willing to spend your time with your family or at a paid job instead.

I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. And I really appreciate that you guys have decided to share your opinions. We might find a reasonable answer together.

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Hi Dennis.

As you say the OpenFlexure is my job and there are a few of us working on it and projects that support it. So there is no way we could have put this level of effort in if it was in our spare time. [As a side point lots of academics design hardware for their job, and are publicly funded, so there is still a motivation issue to get them to share this work!]

I work “full time” on the microscope project. But you include all of the work we do writing papers, writing the GitBuilding (our documentation tool), writing grants, doing many side projects, doing general other general academic job stuff. So, who knows exactly in hours, but a lot!

We do sell microscope kits in the UK. We don’t really sell them to make a lot of money. But we use the funds from this to pay for things that are hard to pay for via the university (running the website is one example).

The next version v7 has lots of improvements making the microscope more product-like. Hiding trailing wires, using nut traps to stop plastic threads stripping, improving the electronics housing, more robustly holding the microscope together. It should then be possible to sell the microscope as an assembled product. Personally, I don’t have time to be assembling full microscopes for sale, I do too many things as it is. But we are really hoping that other companies will start selling it as a product, from the companies we have talked to it seems they are willing to forward some of the profit to help us support the project. Some of us wrote a whitepaper on our earlier disucssions about distributed production.

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Hi Dennis,
these are interesting considerations. Regarding the last point, on why we don’t see more “day to day” items as open source hardware.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are somewhat in the “infancy” of open source hardware (sure the concept exists for many many years), where more and more companies/groups/institutions are starting to look at it as a mature way of producing objects.

Then there is the whole counter force of “business as usual”. One silly example: if things are engineered to last a finite number of years (5-7?) so that consumers can take the broken thing, dump it and buy a shiny new one, then there is zero interest in making them open source and serviceable.

A good thing that is happening is the “right to repair” movement, where (if I have the information right) in Europe, it is now expected that manufacturers provide replacement parts for their devices for at least 10 years (but maybe someone should add more details on this one, as I am not sure what I am saying is absolutely correct). I think this will end up pushing things into a more open source way of doing things (of course, only this by itself won’t be enough).

my impression is that it is only a matter of time for open source hardware to be widely available. I don’t think it will replace current modes of production, but as with software, it will co-exist with proprietary solutions.

Here are some more examples of companies and projects that are open source and closer to “day to day” things:

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