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Research software management, sharing and sustainability

By Daniel Van Strien, on 23 January 2017

Two weeks ago I attended ‘research software management, sharing and sustainability’ at the British Library. The event organised by the Software Sustainability Institute (an organisation promoting best practices in research software development) and JISC and hosted by the British Library aimed to explore some of the challenges that researchers faced in developing, maintaining and sharing software they produce as part of their research. In my role as one of the Research Data Support officers one of my responsibilities involves helping foster best practices around research data management. This includes issues around data collection, organisation, storage and sharing – increasingly activities aided by the use of software. For many data collections, analysis and reuse is difficult, if not impossible, without access to the software that was used to generate, process or analyse the data.  As a result of this close relationship between data and software, it is important that research data management activities considers software alongside data.

Image result for british library creative commons

The first session of the day was run by Neil Chue Hong of the Software Sustainability Institute. Neil’s talk framed the rest of the day with the title ‘is my research right? Surviving in a post-expert world’. Neil began by discussing research projects where software (or more specifically the way humans used software) has resulted in incorrect results being published. Many of these mistakes were later discovered by other researchers demonstrating the importance of making underlying data and code available for others to interrogate. Having introduced some of the problems Neil outlined some of the things that researchers can do to address these. Suggestions for best practices were presented in a paper, ‘Best Practices for Scientific Computing’  include using version control, unit testing your code and using a continuous integration service. A subsequent paper recognised that some of these best practices could be intimidating to researchers so a set of ‘Good Enough Practices in Scientific Computing’ was subsequently published.

Following Neil’s session there were a range of group discussions and exercises alongside sessions by Torsten Reimer, Angela Dappert and Rachael Kotarski covering institutional support, software preservation and crediting software. There are already a range of UCL services which support researchers in these areas. Research IT Services provide training, consulting on software development and a research software dashboard which helps researchers get credit for software they produce as part of their research by linking it to IRIS profiles and making it easier for others to cite this software.

"Citation needed" CC BY 2.0 Image by 'futureatlas.com' on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8PhzKc

“Citation needed” –  CC BY 2.0 image by ‘futureatlas.com’ on Flickr

Many of the sessions mentioned potential roles libraries could have in supporting software sharing and sustainability, these included hosting sessions on best software practices for researchers, incorporating considerations around software and code in open access and research data management services and working to shift practices and cultures of academic recognition (not a simple task!).  A simple step is to encourage students and academics to cite software used as part of their research. The Software Sustainability Institute offers guidance on citing software in academic papers. Currently researchers do not often receive the same level of academic recognition for software they write when compared to other academic outputs. Projects like Depsy are playing a part in trying to shift this lack of recognition by tracking contributions researchers have made to software, and the subsequent use of that code in other software or published outputs. Librarians can also support researchers by offering them support in making their own code citable.

Although there were no simple solutions to the issues raised during the sessions it was useful to share ideas with other people working in similar and different contexts and to begin to think about projects that would help address these issues. The Software Sustainability Institute host regular events and has a great range of resources which I would recommend if you are interested in these issues.

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