Software Sustainability in Practice at the University of York
Posted by j.laird
on 8 April 2021 - 9:30am
On Tuesday 20 April 2021 the University of York will run a Software Sustainability in Practice event, one of several upcoming Open Research at York events and community-led initiatives which aim to support and advocate for best practice in open research across the University.
In this blog post, Ben Catt (Open Research Librarian) and Killian Murphy (Research Software Engineer) talk in more detail about the work that has taken place so far at York, and what they are planning to achieve in the coming year.
Sustainable software and York Open Research
As members of the University Open Research Operations Group (which includes colleagues from Library and IT Services and academic departments) we see software sustainability as closely coupled with wider open and reproducible research practices. For results created with software to be reproducible, others need to be able find, understand, and run your software. Are they likely to understand what your software does without appropriate documentation? Are they likely to be able to get your software running if it can’t be straightforwardly installed? Will they be able to credit your software if they can’t find it? These are just a few issues that will prevent research outputs from being truly open and reproducible, and that sustainable software development practices can help with.
2020 was a significant year for open and reproducible research both at York and around the world. We talked about this in detail on our Inspiring Minds blog in January, outlining how practices such as the open sharing of Covid-related data and preprints, along with public participation in Citizen Science projects have grown during the pandemic. The movement towards open research has also been supported widely by funders including UKRI and Wellcome (both of whom endorse Plan S, the Europe-wide initiative for full and immediate open access to research outputs) as well as the UK Government (in their Research and Development Roadmap), European Commission, and UNESCO.
The University of York announced its commitment to the values, principles and culture of open research (including open practices for software and data) in a statement published in May 2020. Several other research-intensive UK universities have published their own statements (as collated in this post by Nick Sheppard, Open Research Advisor at Leeds University Library), reflecting a clear shift in strategic direction across the HE sector. We also took an opportunity to showcase the work of York researchers across various disciplines, including SSI Fellow Emma Rand, at an online launch event in June (recording available on YouTube).
Researchers awareness and engagement
A key objective for the Open Research Operations Group was to gain a better understanding of awareness and engagement across our wider research community. We were already aware of activities taking place in individual departments, such as open science interest groups in Psychology and Education, and the long-established York-based Archaeological Data Service, but we wanted to gain further insight into specific practices and the barriers that researchers may face.
We decided to run a survey based on a previous example from Cardiff University School of Psychology. The results showed that open access publishing and open licensing were widely experienced and valued, but other practices were mostly unfamiliar to our respondents. The survey did not address software sustainability specifically, but ‘Open software / code’ was listed amongst the practices surveyed and a majority of respondents had no experience (41.8%, mostly from Arts and Humanities or Social Sciences). However 34% of respondents (52.9% in the Sciences) saw these practices as being ‘very important’, suggesting potential interest in training and support for software skills (respondents also cited lack of training, clarity and understanding as significant barriers across open research more broadly).
There were some issues with our survey which we will try to address in future evidence-gathering exercises. The sample size (244 respondents) was adequate but not wholly representative of all disciplines and respondent roles. Further consideration could have been given to issues of response bias, and the list of practices we surveyed was not inclusive of all disciplines. However, despite not providing a comprehensive picture of open research awareness and engagement across the University, this survey offered useful evidence of activity (and non-activity) in many areas and things for the Open Research Operations Group to act upon.
A key area of work informed by the survey results is the development of a community-led York Open Research Advocates network, modelled on successful schemes in the Netherlands and elsewhere (see the Open Science Community Starter Kit). Our Advocates will be ‘local champions’ for open research practice in their discipline, helping to develop and deliver training workshops, provide peer-to-peer support and assess the integration of practices and principles in their departments, including within teaching curriculums.
We are also organising a few open research in practice events this Summer term, including our Software Sustainability in Practice event on Tuesday 20 April, which will bring together researchers from different disciplines with a shared interest in sustainable, open and reproducible software practices. We are delighted to have a guest keynote by Prof Simon Hettrick (Software Sustainability Institute Deputy Director) with talks by SSI Fellows Dr Jon Hill and Emma Rand, and EPSRC RSE Fellow Dr Peter Hill. The event is aimed at researchers and support staff at the University of York, but registration is open to external attendees at Eventbrite and a recording of the event will be shared publicly afterwards.
We look forward to fostering the York Open Research community and providing researchers with opportunities to showcase their practice in the coming months, with an Open Humanities themed event on Monday 24 May and a best practice awards event planned for June. Further events and initiatives are being discussed for the 2021/22 academic year, and we are always looking for opportunities to collaborate with organisations such as SSI and with open research-focused colleagues and networks at other institutions.