Software and research: the Institute's Blog

Latest version published on 11 December, 2017.

RSEsBy Caroline Jay, University of Manchester, Albert Solernou, University of Leeds, and Mark Woodbridge, Imperial College London

At present, few higher education institutions in the UK - or indeed internationally - employ a central team of dedicated research software engineers (RSEs) who sit outside of any specific academic department. The allocation of baseline funding to software developers is considered a risky activity when every member of staff represents a significant ongoing cost which has to be recovered. A cautious approach to employing people in what may be perceived as a completely new role is understandable, particularly in an uncertain financial climate.

Nevertheless, permanently employing RSEs has the potential to pay huge dividends, a fact borne out by the institutions who have established central pools, including the University of Manchester, UCL and the Turing Institute, and rapidly expanded their teams.

Institutional benefits of employing RSEs

A primary benefit of including software engineers on the baseline can be summed up by the Software Sustainability Institute mantra of “better software, better research”. Involving professional software engineers in research projects leads to better quality data, analysis and results, which has a direct impact on the scientific evidence base. Higher…

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Latest version published on 8 December, 2017.

Fellows 2018

By Raniere Silva, Community Officer

We started recruiting for our Fellowship Programme 2018 in August 2017. 44 applications, 176 reviews and two online review meetings later, we are happy to announce our 17 new Software Sustainability Institute Fellows for 2018. With many amazing candidates, our new research software ambassadors represent some of the best people working in—and advocating for—better research software.

Compared to previous years, we noticed a drop by more than half of the number of applications, probably due the changes to this year’s application process, but every reviewer commented that the candidates were excellent and that this was the hardest year so far to select our fellows.

2018 Fellows come from eight fields in the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS) code, including Medical Sciences, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Engineering, Computer Sciences, Social Studies and Business and Administrative Studies. Their work is supported from BBSRC, EPSRC, MRC, NERC and STFC.

We have representatives from 11 institutions in the UK, including the Cabinet Office for the first time. The University College London and the University of Sheffield are the institutions with more fellows this year (three fellows each). Our theory is that this is a…

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Latest version published on 7 December, 2017.

Overcoming barriersBy Alys Brett, UK Atomic Energy Authority, Sam Cox, University of Leicester, Carina Haupt, German Aerospace Center (DLR), and Jason Maassen, Netherlands eScience Center.

When we talk in general terms about software development practices most people will nod along, maybe slightly nervously. From experience, we know that it can be hard for some commonly accepted good practices to gain traction or be sustained after the initial enthusiasm. However, this can often be overcome if standard approaches are adapted to better fit within a research context.  

What are the barriers?

The research sphere is very varied, but there are a number of recurring barriers to adoption of best practice in the research context.

The career histories of researchers create a wide range of skill levels - while some researchers are already used to best practice in a number of areas, others have a very basic level of experience. While in a corporate context most team members may be at a similar level due to shared…

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Latest version published on 6 December, 2017.

ReproducibilityBy Sarah Alhozaimy, University of Manchester, David Mawdsley, University of Manchester, Doug Mulholland, University of Waterloo, Thor Wikfeldt, KTH.

Ensuring reproducibility of research has been identified as one of the challenges in scientific research. While reproducibility of results is a concern in all fields of science, the emphasis of this group is in the area of computer software reuse and the reproduction of results. The availability of complete descriptions, ideally including program source code, documentation and archives of all necessary components and input datasets would be a major step to resolving research reproducibility concerns.

One of the barriers to reproducible research is the issue of training for researchers. Many of the tools used in reproducible research, such as version control, unit testing and automation are seen (by non-software engineers) as being of interest only to professional coders. “Selling” the benefits of an engineering approach to scholarly publication will be an important part of encouraging reproducible research; training programmes such as the Software and Data Carpentries, and Code Refinery have an important role to play in introducing these ideas to researchers, ideally early in their careers. They present a compelling case to the learner of the benefits of, e.g…

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Latest version published on 5 December, 2017.

Software use in researchBy Daniel S. Katz, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Robert Haines, Research IT, University of Manchester, David Perez-Suarez, Research IT Services, UCL, Alexander Struck, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Nowadays, software is used in most research. But how the software is created, used, and what it depends on are not well understood questions. The importance of such knowledge varies based on the motivation of the reader. On one side, we could be interested in the impact of the software, how many times it has been used and by who. This type of analysis could come, for example, from funding bodies and organisations to reward the creation of something and help its sustainability, from institutions who hire people behind that software, or from the software authors to get an understanding of the needs of their users or simply to get credit for their work. Another motivation may be trying to understand the research being carried out with a particular software or set of tools either for purely academic purposes (e.g., by historians and scholars of science) or with a commercial perspective (such as by intellectual property teams from universities for the monetisation of the software). Some other purposes have to do with reproducibility and provenance: for example, how do we know which calculations need to be repeated if a bug is discovered in a particular version of software?

Looking for software in research is one of many topics…

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