Improving ecological data science with workflow management software


Pressing environmental research questions demand the integration of increasingly diverse and large-scale ecological datasets as well as complex analytical methods, which require specialized tools and resources. Computational training for ecological and evolutionary sciences has become more abundant and accessible over the past decade, but tool development has outpaced the availability of specialized training. Most training for scripted analyses focuses on individual analysis steps in one script rather than creating a scripted pipeline, where modular functions comprise an ecosystem of interdependent steps. Although current computational training creates an excellent starting place, linear styles of scripting can risk becoming labor- and time-intensive and less reproducible by often requiring manual execution. Pipelines, however, can be easily automated or tracked by software to increase efficiency and reduce potential errors. Ecology and evolution would benefit from techniques that reduce these risks by managing analytical pipelines in a modular, readily parallelizable format with clear documentation of dependencies. Workflow management software (WMS) can aid in the reproducibility, intelligibility and computational efficiency of complex pipelines. To date, WMS adoption in ecology and evolutionary research has been slow. We discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing WMS and illustrate its use through a case study with the targets r package to further highlight WMS benefits through workflow automation, dependency tracking and improved clarity for reviewers. Although WMS requires familiarity with function-oriented programming and careful planning for more advanced applications and pipeline sharing, investment in training will enable access to the benefits of WMS and impart transferable computing skills that can facilitate ecological and evolutionary data science at large scales.

Methods in Ecology and Evolution