Research Software Engineers

38689453920_3f7c3fa2d5_z.jpgBy Anna Krystalli, University of Sheffield, and Toby Hodges, EMBL Bio-IT

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series of blog posts.

03: Continuing Challenges

Moving From a Top Down to a Decentralised Model

We were all in agreement that one of the most challenging aspects of sustaining community is enlisting contributions. Challenges to peoples time and the non trivial work providing support and encouragement required to foster welcoming inclusive environments pose challenges to motivating participation.

To a certain extent, dedicated seed staff will likely continue to be an important determinant on the success of a community building initiative. While making the most of the available tools and practices we've been discussing (automation, open, reusable materials, good communication channels) can really aid decentralisation, sustaining momentum and mechanisms to empower and recruit grassroots leadership is still required.

Lack of Funding & Recognition

Something I found really interesting was that both (Toby) EMBL and (Tobias) DLR had not realised how far ahead the initiatives they represented were in the areas they were leading. Tobias…

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16341039835_70b510396f_z.jpgBy Anna Krystalli, University of Sheffield, and Toby Hodges, EMBL Bio-IT

02: What Works

In this blog series, we're sharing our experiences from our meeting at Heidelberg to discuss how to build communities to support Research Software Engineering. We provided the background to our meeting and introduced the participants in our first post. In this one we pull out the recurring threads in our experiences of what worked.

Knowing your community

This is fundamental to the community's ability to add value and should be one of the first community development steps. We need to know both where the community is at and where they want to go. Activities responsive to such community goals, needs and aspirations will generate a higher rate of engagement and voluntary participation.

And it all started with a survey: we all started with some form of surveying our communities. But on-going revisiting and reflecting on such fundamentals is important for community sustainability so.

Effective communication channels

Community == communication

Effective communication channels are vital for both the transfer and processing of information, particularly of tacit knowledge, but also for fostering social, collaborative relationships…

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413592672_0b437c7519_z.jpgBy Anna Krystalli, University of Sheffield, and Toby Hodges, EMBL Bio-IT

01: Background

So many of us have been fired up by the UK Research Software Engineer (RSE) initiative and it's spread throughout further European Countries. The spark for this particular meeting started at the Second RSE conference held in 2017.

For me, the initiatives described by Toby Hodges at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) at Heidelberg and Tobias Schlauch at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) had been two of my favourite talks and motivated me to find out more. I kept in touch with Toby and we informally swapped notes over online meetings. In the meantime Toby and Tobias had already been synthesising some of their experiences, published in this post at the Software Sustainability Institute's website. I was also excited to see the results of the German RSE survey presented by …

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Following the success of the Second Conference of Research Software Engineers, the RSE conference 2018 will take place at the Bramall Building at the University of Birmingham, on 3rd-4th September 2018. RSE18 is the perfect opportunity to promote your products and services to research software engineering leaders and decision makers (present and future) at the only conference purpose built for RSEs.

The organising committee welcome submissions for workshops and talks for the RSE18 conference. The aim is to reflect the diverse community of research software engineers by seeking input from a variety of domains, geographic locations, gender, ethnicities and experience.

The conference themes for RSE18 are:

  • Good practice for software development

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7337761518_57b80d725b_z.jpgBy Simon Hettrick, Deputy Director.

When I first started thinking about how we could create a career path for Research Software Engineers (RSEs) in academia, I assumed we would have to persuade university management to change their policies and make it possible, or at least much easier, for researchers to retain RSEs within their groups. The actual solution has been somewhat different, and much more effective.

Pioneers at a growing number of universities have seized the initiative and set up their own RSE group. These groups employ a number of RSEs and then hire them out to researchers at their home organisation. It’s a win-win for researchers: they gain access to the skills they need and—unlike hiring new personnel—they only pay when they need those skills. By servicing an entire university, RSE groups tap into enough demand to allow a number of RSEs to be consistently employed.

When RSE groups are first launched they tend to hire generalists, but as they grow they can hire more specialists, which makes skills available that researchers could only dream of accessing without such a group. As they grow, RSE groups need senior staff who can run larger projects and oversee the work of others, and this creates the RSE career path that has been so sorely needed.

In other words, we’re winning the fight for RSE…

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8419988105_367cb3d1f8_z.jpgBy Matt Archer, Paul Brown, Stephen Dowsland, David Mawdsley, Amy Krause, Mark Turner (order is alphabetical).

So… you’ve just started on an exciting new data science project, but you know nothing about the domain you’re working on. Besides briefly panicking, how do you get up to speed on the area you’re working on?

First thing's's good to meet the researchers you'll be working with as quickly as possible. Most researchers are excited about their research; this enthusiasm is infectious. Ask questions. Be interested.

To get a basic grounding in your new area, YouTube is an invaluable source of quick bursts of domain knowledge for both a general subject area or the detailed specifics and intricacies of a niche within that subject area. Video tutorials can take many forms but the useful ones to look for are short explainers on concepts or tooling, as well as longer form recordings of things like lectures, workshops and panel discussions. YouTube has become a primary method of user training materials for large software vendors, there are thousands of video tutorials on how to use tools or perform specific actions for things like Jupyter Notebooks, Excel and Adobe Photoshop. If there are large commonly used pieces of software in the domain you’re trying to learn, there may be similar videos available to help get started with that software platform.

It can be useful to ask for a background reading list from the researchers you're working with. Selectively…

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8236647979_efbfd1d409_z.jpgBy Matthew Archer, Stephen Dowsland, Rosa Filgueira, R. Stuart Geiger, Alejandra Gonzalez-Beltran, Robert Haines, James Hetherington, Christopher Holdgraf, Sanaz Jabbari Bayandor, David Mawdsley, Heiko Mueller, Tom Redfern, Martin O'Reilly, Valentina Staneva, Mark Turner, Jake VanderPlas, Kirstie Whitaker (authors in alphabetical order)

In our institutions, we employ multidisciplinary research staff who work with colleagues across many research fields to use and create software to understand and exploit research data. These researchers collaborate with others across the academy to create software and models to understand, predict and classify data not just as a service to advance the research of others, but also as scholars with opinions about computational research as a field, making supportive interventions to advance the practice of science.

Some of us use the term "data scientist" to refer to our team members, in others we use "research software engineer" (RSE), and in some both. Where both terms are used, the difference seems to be that data scientists in an academic context focus more on using software to understand data, while research software engineers more often make software libraries for others to use. However, in some places, one or other term is used to cover both, according to local tradition.

What we have in common

Regardless of job title, we hold in common many of the skills involved and the goal of driving the use of open and reproducible…

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253580496_491d04cc53_z.jpgBy R. Stuart Geiger, Alejandra Gonzalez-Beltran, Robert Haines, James Hetherington, Chris Holdgraf, Heiko Mueller, Martin O'Reilly, Tomas Petricek, Jake VanderPlas (authors in alphabetical order)

Data and software have enmeshed themselves in the academic world, and are a growing force in most academic disciplines (many of which are not traditionally seen as "data-intensive"). Many universities wish to improve their ability to create software tools, enable efficient data-intensive collaborations, and spread the use of "data science" methods in the academic community.

The fundamentally cross-disciplinary nature of such activities has led to a common model: the creation of institutes or organisations not bound to a particular department or discipline, focusing on the skills and tools that are common across the academic world. However, creating institutes with a cross-university mandate and non-standard academic practices is challenging. These organisations often do not fit into the "traditional" academic model of institutes or departments, and involve work that is not incentivised or rewarded under traditional academic metrics. To add to this challenge, the combination of quantitative and qualitative skills needed is also highly in-demand in non-academic sectors. This raises the question: how do you create such institutes so that they attract top-notch candidates, sustain themselves over time, and provide value both to members of the group as well as the broader university community?…

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Last year, the Software Sustainability Institute conducted a survey of Research Software Engineers (RSEs) to learn more about them and their work conditions. The RSE community has grown from a concept born at an Institute event to an international phenomenon. It's important to learn more about this community so that our campaigning, and that of our international partners, continues to help RSEs gain the recognition they deserve for their huge contribution to research.

We began surveying RSEs in 2016, in 2017 we also surveyed Canadian RSEs and last year we added four further countries. Our thanks to our partners: Scott Henwood (Canada), Stephan Janosch and Martin Hammitzsch (Germany), Ben van Werkhoven and Tom Bakker (Netherlands), Anelda van der Walt (South Africa) and Daniel Katz and Sandra Gesing (USA).


In total, we analysed 841 responses across the five countries listed below.

Countries Number of analysed responses Link to analysis Link to data
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1_LmBD9OaRAJPnBYBoZwyZMw.jpgBy the Netherlands eScience Center

This post was originally published at the NL eScience centre blog.

Research software has become an indispensable instrument for virtually every academic researcher. A case in point: survey data from the UK revealed that 92% of academics use research software, 69% say that their research would not be practical without it and 56% develop their own software. Creating, storing and analyzing data is crucial in researchers’ daily work and enables them to address increasingly challenging research questions.

This rapid digitization of research has strongly increased the number of people writing and contributing to research software. This is part of a more general trend, where positions like data stewardsinformation managers, research data officer, research supporter and other non-traditional research positions are becoming increasingly recognized as intrinsic positions in the academic research ecosystem. To increase the impact, recognition and visibility of research software in academia, we (ePlan and the Netherlands eScience Center) have taken the initiative to start and…

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