What do we know about RSEs? Results from our international surveys

DOI

Since 2016, the Software Sustainability Institute conducts surveys 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.

 

The 2018 survey is currently open for participants. If you wish to fill it, you can follow this link to the survey:

 

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).

Below you can find a link to individual reports and dataset for each country which participated to the survey.

Countries 2016 results 2017 results
Canada N/A Analysis / Public data
Germany N/A Analysis / Public data
Netherlands N/A Analysis / Public data
United Kingdom Analysis / Public data Analysis / Public data
United States of America N/A Analysis / Public data
South Africa N/A Analysis / Public data

Composition of the survey

The base questions for the survey were tailored to meet the requirements of each country. They covered ten subjects:

  1. Demographics: traditional social and economic questions, such as gender, age, salary and education.
  2. Coding: how much code do RSEs write, how often, and for whom.
  3. Employment: questions about where RSEs work and in which disciplines.
  4. Current contract: understanding stability of employment by questioning the type of employment contract RSEs receive.
  5. Previous employment: understanding routes into the profession the reasons for choosing it.
  6. Collaboration and training: who RSEs work with, how many people they work with, and the training they conduct.
  7. Publications: do RSEs contribute to publications and are they acknowledged?
  8. Sustainability: testing, bus factor, technical handover.
  9. Job satisfaction: what do RSEs think about their job and their career?
  10. Network: how do RSEs meet and gain representation?

2017: A quick insight into the results

Results differ across countries, but there are a few broad themes that appear common for RSEs around the world (obviously, we'll make some generalisations here, but just go directly to the data as described in the linking to the data section below.

Gender, age and qualifications

RSEs are mainly male and generally found in the 25 to 44 years old age bracket. The majority of them hold a doctorate, except for in Germany where just under half of RSEs have a PhD.

Countries Gender Age Qualification
Canada N/A N/A Doctorate (45%)
Germany Male (83%) 25 – 44 (84%) Doctorate (48%)
Netherlands Male (89%) 25 – 44 (84%) Doctorate (56%)
United Kingdom Male (84%) 25 – 44 (75%) Doctorate (67%)
United States of America Male (82%) 25 – 44 (69%) Doctorate (60%)
South Africa Male (92%) 25 – 44 (76%) Doctorate (68%)

Discipline of study and work

RSEs are most likely to have a degree in: Computer sciences, Physics and Astronomy, or Biology.

Country First discipline Second discipline Third discipline
Canada Information technology (25%) Biomedical engineering (7%) Artificial intelligence (5%)
Germany Physics and astronomy (26%) Computer sciences (17%) Biology (11%)
Netherlands Computer sciences (20%) Physics and astronomy (18%) Biology (12%)
United Kingdom Computer sciences (27%) Physics and astronomy (27%) Biology (8%)
United States of America Computer sciences (25%) Physics and astronomy (15%) Biology (15%)
South Africa Physics and astronomy (55%) Other (9%) Electrical & Electronic Engineering (5%)

RSEs tend to work in the fields of Computer sciences, Biology, and Physics and Astronomy.

Country First discipline Second discipline Third discipline
Canada Information technology (21%) Artificial intelligence (8%) Biomedical engineering (7%)
Germany Computer science (18%) Physics and astronomy (14%) Biology (14%)
Netherlands Computer science (20%) Biology (10%) Physics and astronomy (10%)
United Kingdom Computer science (15%) Biology (11%) Physics and astronomy (10%)
United States of America Computer science (21%) Biology (12%) Physics and astronomy (9%)
South Africa Physics and astronomy (29%) CS (12%) Mathematics (10%)

However, a closer look at the results shows an interdisciplinary perspective to RSEs work. As shown in this further analysis of the UK results, up to 63% of UK RSEs are working in more than one discipline.

Why choose the RSE career path?

We asked respondents to list in priority order their reasons for choosing the RSE career. The top three responses are shown below. It is the research environment that mainly attracts RSEs, but a desire to advance research is also a major draw. Ultimately, RSEs want to work in research, but do not want to follow a conventional research career path.

Country First reason Second reason Third reason
Canada N/A N/A N/A
Germany Desire to work in a research environment Freedom to choose own working practices Desire to advance research
Netherlands N/A N/A N/A
United Kingdom Desire to work in a research environment Desire to advance research Opportunity to develop software
United States of America Desire to advance research Desire to work in a research environment Freedom to choose own working practices
South Africa Desire to work in a research environment Flexible working hours Ability to work accross disciplines

The role of RSEs in publications

RSEs make a major contribution to publications, but they are not always acknowledged for doing so (and are named as an author even less frequently).

Country Software used for publication Acknowledged in the paper
Canada 76% 70%
Germany 83% 71%
Netherlands 95% 77%
United Kingdom 91% 78%
United States of America 90% 71%
South Africa 74% 42%

Tools and working practices

RSEs are keen users of open-source licences for their code, but less frequent users of Digital Object Identifier (DOI).

Country Use of open source licence Use of DOI
Canada 84% 26%
Germany 62% 18%
Netherlands 85% 31%
United Kingdom 68% 22%
United States of America 81% 32%
South Africa 44% 11%

We asked about testing, the bus factor of their biggest project and the presence of a technical handover plan.

Country Testing Bus factor Technical handover
Canada N/A N/A N/A
Germany 15% not implementing anything 1 (57%) Yes (19%)
Netherlands 13% not implementing anything 1 (45%) Yes (21%)
United Kingdom 10% no testing 1 (42%) Yes (26%)
United States of America 7% no testing 1 (39%) Yes (18%)
South Africa 24% no testing 1 (78%) Yes (11%)

The percentage of RSEs not implementing any form of testing could be argued as rather low, but keeping in mind the importance of their work in producing and publishing research 10% untested code is still a problem. A similar problem is found with the bus factor. The majority response across all countries is a bus factor of 1, making research software highly vulnerable to staff absence or movement.

What languages to RSEs prefer?

There are some differences across countries, but Python is clearly the dominant language among RSEs.

Country First language Second language Third language
Canada N/A N/A N/A
Germany Python (18%) C++ (10%) Javascript (9%)
Netherlands N/A N/A N/A
United Kingdom Python (15%) Unix Shell Script (11%) Markup language (9%)
United States of America Python (18%) C (11%) C++ (10%)
South Africa Python (22%) SQL (10%) R (10%)

This quick overview only scratches the surface of the data we collected. To get complete access to the available information, you can peruse the Github repository. The data is provided under a Creative Commons by attribution licence. The data and analysis are stored in Zeonodo:

DOI