JISC policy on open source software

by Randy Metcalfe on 15 October 2005 , last updated

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The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) manages research and development programmes in the use of ICT in teaching, learning and research to build knowledge; develops services, infrastructure or applications; and provides guidance and leadership. As a channel for top-sliced UK Research and Development funding, JISC has a strategic and practical interest in maximising returns on infrastructure investment. Increasingly it has turned to open source development methodologies to aid this effort. The policy guidance that JISC provides in this area reflects both its strategic aims as well as expressing an implementation of UK government policy.

The Policy

The JISC policy on open source software for JISC projects and services draws on three main sources:

  • UK government policy on open source
  • well-established best-practice in software engineering and management of intellectual property rights (IPR)
  • current IT best-practice within JISC and higher and further education more broadly

The initial draft of the JISC policy was written by Sebastian Rahtz and Stuart Yeates of OSS Watch in June 2004, at which point the UK government policy was still subject to ongoing consultation. That first draft of a possible JISC policy was speculative. What could an open source policy for projects and services funded by JISC look like? What should it look like? Sebastian and Stuart wrote that first draft solely with an eye toward best practice in software development and deployment. It was the JISC executive that carried it through and shaped it into a policy that could be put into practice.

The UK government policy matured significantly between its initial version and the current version published on 28 October 2004. So too did the JISC policy. The ongoing consultation and revision in light of feedback from various JISC committees was carried through by Alan Robiette. It was thus in February 2005 that the current version of the JISC policy was passed by the appropriate JISC committee.

It can seem to take a long time for a sensible policy to emerge from its inception to its finished form. It can take just as long for such a policy to begin to have an impact.

The JISC recognises that the policy will not be accepted if guidance and support is not provided for those wishing to implement it. That is why OSS Watch exists, we are here to provide unbiased advice and guidance about open source software. With our help, and through the support of other services and project management teams development projects have been testing the waters by releasing their outputs under open source licences. Other projects have explored open source development methodologies, which for many is a welcome departure from standard closed-shop software development practices. There have been challenges and some successes. For example at the 2008 JISC conference the JISC provided a special demo area for open source projects.

Open source development entails substantial involvement with user and developer communities that are not directly part of the JISC-funded project. Learning how to engage with such communities, how to manage open source projects, how to build towards sustainability - all this knowledge and experience has flowed into the JISC policy.

Admittedly there is still plenty to learn. OSS Watch has been working closely with the JISC development projects: from facilitating the sometimes difficult task of open source licence choice (along with its implications) to planning for sustainability through building project communities.

Accommodating diversity

There is much to glean from the JISC policy. There is, for example, plenty of evidence of how the JISC has shaped the policy to account for the diversity of the institutions which the The JISC supports. For example, some institutions have a Microsoft Windows only desktop policy. To accommodate this the policy does not recommend or mandates specific practices or software, it merely insists that open source be considered equally alongside closed source. Likewise, there are many institutions with little or no internal hosting capability. Therefore the policy suggests free third-party specialist hosting for all necessary archiving, version control and web hosting. And again, for small institutions which have only a limited software development capability, the policy ensures that all requirements can readily be met by small institutions, consortia and institutions which out-source their software development.

Government Policy Evolves

Since this document was written, the UK Government in February 2009 published an Action Plan on the subjects of open source, open standards and software reuse. The plan detailed some examples of increased uptake of open source solutions within the UK public sector, reinforced the messages of the 2004 policy paper and added the following interesting clause: “Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.” This represents a strong signal that the qualities of easy adaptibility and reuse that characterise free and open source software are important for the provision of good public sector service.


The JISC open source policy is based on experience and consultation. OSS Watch is delighted to see the JISC leading in this area and is working hard to help the JISC achieve its objectives, consistent with the UK government policy, of best practice in software development and deployment.

Further reading


Related Information from OSS Watch: