Universities and academic software development – Software Sustainability Institute fellowship reportAugust 9, 2016
by Torsten Reimer
“At a research-intensive university like Imperial it is hard to do anything that doesn’t involve data,” noted Imperial’s Provost when he launched the KPMG Data Observatory last year. The importance of data in research is now commonplace, from proclaiming the rise of a scientific Fourth Paradigm to celebrating “data scientist” as “the sexiest job of the 21st century” and research funders mandating research data management (RDM). Comparatively, software has received less attention – and yet without software there is no data, certainly no “big” data, and no data science either. In fact, there may well be no ‘modern’ research without it – in a 2014 survey 7 out of 10 researchers said it is now impossible to do research without software.
Despite the importance of research software, academia could improve its support for academic coders. A university career is usually measured on publications, citations, grants and, perhaps, teaching. Focusing on keeping the tools of a research group up-to-date is not likely to give you either, and highly paid industry posts may be more appealing than short term academic contracts.
When I was a student and part-time university staff I was one of the people who developed and maintained digital research infrastructure. At the time, senior colleagues advised us not to risk our careers by becoming ‘mere technicians’ instead of doing ‘real’ research. This attitude has since changed somewhat, but beyond research support roles the career paths for academic software developers are still murky and insecure.
Thankfully, there are now initiatives dedicated to change this. One of them is the UK’s Software Sustainability Institute (SSI), a fantastic organisation with the simple yet powerful slogan: “Better Software, Better Research”. In 2015 I became a fellow of the SSI, and through this blog post I report on some of my related activities.
Supporting Research Software Engineers
Organisations like the SSI help to create a professional identity for coding academics, or research software engineers, as they are now called. One of the recent achievements was the formation of a UK RSE community as a first step to professionalization. Imperial College now has its own RSE group, and I am pleased that I had a chance to contribute a little to its formation. The focus of my fellowship activity was on improving College support for academic software development, and I approached this through policy.
In recent years, UK research funders released a set of policies governing academic research data management. This led to universities defining their own policies and making plans for the corresponding support infrastructure. At the heart of Imperial’s RDM policy is the requirement to preserve the data needed to validate academic publications – reproducibility is a core principle of research, after all. During the policy development I suggested that we should go a step beyond funder requirements to include software. Without code, after all, there is a risk that data cannot be understood. In some cases, the code is arguably more valuable than the data generated by it. This led to our policy requiring that where software is developed as part of a project “the particular version of the software used to generate or analyse the data” has to be archived alongside the data.
One of our principles for policy development was that there would be no College requirement without us providing – directly or indirectly – solutions that enable academics to comply, and that we would seek to add value where possible. This brought up the question: how do you facilitate the archiving, and ideally wider sustainability, of research code?
One answer, in general terms, is: by supporting best practice in software development, in particular the use of version control. Being able to track contributions to code makes it possible to give credit. Being able to distinguish different versions allows researchers to archive the right code. Running a distributed version control system (DVCS) makes it easy to open up the development and share code.
In informal consultation academics pointed to the open source DVCS Git – not surprisingly perhaps, considering its global popularity. We knew from anecdotal evidence that a broad range of DVCS are used at the College. Some academics pay for commercial solutions, others use free web-based options and some groups are hosting their own. There is no central support and coordination, leading to inefficiencies and, to an extent, a lack of central College engagement with academic coders.
Imperial College survey on distributed version control
To better understand current practice, I worked with colleagues in ICT to develop a survey aimed at DVCS users across the College. We launched the survey in November 2015 and circulated it via the RSE community, academic champions and email newsletters. 263 completed responses were received – for what some would call an “esoteric” topic this was a very good response, especially considering that we only approached a fraction of our 4,000 academics directly. The responses also showed that it was not just the usual suspects, such as computer scientists, who have an interest in DVCS (fewer than half of the responses came from the Faculty of Engineering).
- 96% of respondents were aware of Git, and 82% actively use it
- The main alternatives to Git are Subversion (65 users), Mercurial (18) and CVS (17)
- Of the active Git users:
- 75% were rating themselves as expert or intermediate
- 91% use Git for academic research, 22% in teaching and 18% for commercial work
- 50% use Git for both closed and open development, and about a quarter each use it only or mostly for closed or open development
- The main uses of Git are: code/documentation (99%), data/documents (53%), managing configuration files (35%), data sharing/sync (34%), backend for wiki/blog etc. (19%)
- GitHub is by far the most popular Git web-repository (79%), followed by Bitbucket (45%) and Gitlab (22%)
Sample survey question: How do you use Git? (check all that apply)
|1||Code (programming) and its documentation||201||99%|
|2||Data, documents (also e.g. static website)||107||53%|
|3||Sharing data or sync||69||34%|
|4||Managing configuration files||72||35%|
|5||Backend for wiki, blog, or other web app||39||19%|
|6||Backend for bug tracker / issue tracker||32||16%|
|7||Backend (versioned storage) for other kind of app||14||7%|
|8||Interacting with other SCM (e.g. git-svn)||9||4%|
|9||Other (please specify)||9||4%|
The, annonymised, survey results are available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.59894
GitHub Enterprise for Imperial?
We were particularly interested in finding out whether it would be worthwhile for the College to invest in GitHub, the hosted Git environment. GitHub is free to use, as long as you don’t mind your code being publicly accessible; there is a charge for private code repositories. Some respondents expressed a preference for a College-hosted open source solution or other platforms such as Bitbucket, but many comments pointed to GitHub. Overall there was a consensus that DVCS should be, to quote a participant, “a vital part of e-infrastructure” for an institution like Imperial.
A key requirement that emerged from the consultation was being able to run private code repositories, for example for “codes with commercial or security (e.g. nuclear) related sensitivities”. I am aware that open versus closed can be a controversial topic, but as an organisation with significant industry funding we have to acknowledge that some code cannot be made available publicly. Or, as one respondent put it: “Having a local GitHub Enterprise would definitely add value for us, as we’re working with commercially sensitive data through industrial collaborations, which we can’t put in a publically accessible repository or project management site.”
DVCS like GitHub make it easy for academics to collaborate and share. However, academics value platforms that preserve the integrity of the code while giving them control over what to make publicly accessible and when. The survey pointed to GitHub Enterprise as the preferred platform, a view that was fully endorsed by academics on the College’s RDM steering group.
Following the consultation, the College has made the decision to procure a site licence to GitHub Enterprise. GitHub Enterprise will become a core College service, managed by ICT. There would be no requirement to use GitHub for development, although its use will be encouraged. It was also agreed that we would not simply launch a new out-of-the-box service and hope that that would magically fix all issues. Instead some level of centrally coordinated support and training would be provided – ideally working with groups like the SSI and Software Carpentry. As a first step of the project to launch GitHub Enterprise, focus groups are being set up to gather academic requirements and guide the configuration and introduction of the new service.
Arguably, this does not address concerns about career paths and reward systems for research software engineers. However, it demonstrates that a university like Imperial College values the code written by its staff, and is dedicated to support academic developing of research code. Partly as a result of the consultation, ICT, Library and the Research Office have now increased their engagement with the RSE community. Policy development may not sound like a very exciting task, but where it leads to more communication with and better support for academics I find it worthwhile and exciting enough.