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Eric A. Jensen

Daniel S. Katz

September 7th, 2023

From backstage to spotlight: A call to highlight the critical role of research software

1 comment | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Eric A. Jensen

Daniel S. Katz

September 7th, 2023

From backstage to spotlight: A call to highlight the critical role of research software

1 comment | 12 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The environments and infrastructures that support research, such as research software and the engineers who develop it, are increasingly becoming a focus for research policymakers and funders. Eric A. Jensen and Daniel S. Katz present a call for participation in a new project aimed at better understanding and promoting the value of research software.

In today’s academic ecosystem, research software is a quiet powerhouse, driving progress. A survey of elite UK universities found that 90% of researchers were relying on research software in their work. Yet, this critical aspect of the research enterprise has too often been out of sight and out of mind in the context of research policy and funding.

The UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) recognises a wide range of research outputs, including software, as legitimate contributions. Moreover, non-academic staff, such as research software engineers, can now be submitted to the REF. This official recognition is important, but there is still a great deal of work needed to the distinctive challenges affecting these relatively hidden yet essential pillars of the research ecosystem. This fits into a larger effort to improve working conditions for researchers around the world.

 A survey of elite UK universities found that 90% of researchers were relying on research software in their work.

Research software covers a wide gamut: source code files, algorithms, scripts, computational workflows, and executables—all fashioned during research or explicitly for research aims. As research increasingly leans on computational methods, the need to support the production, maintenance and impact of software is more urgent than ever. How do we measure and extend the impact of research software? How do we integrate it into academic evaluations? How do we ensure its long-term sustainability? A set of answers may be found through policy-related activities, including advocacy, organising, and research.

Building from discussions in the US Research Software Sustainability Institute (URSSI), including a number of workshops and the development of an implementation plan, we’ve outlined a set of possible activities aimed at elevating the role of research software in academic career paths, recognition, and beyond. As part of the Alfred P. Sloan-funded URSSI Policy project, we’ve assembled 44 of these ideas as a starting point, and we’ve posted them as issues in GitHub.

We intend for this to be a living list, where anyone can:

  • Add a new potential activity
  • Comment on an activity
  • Say that they are working on an activity
  • Say that someone else has already worked on an activity, and point to their work
  • Say that they would like to work on an activity in collaboration with others

The activities are labeled by:

  • Type of activity: Research, Advocacy, Organizing/action, Documentation
  • Topic: Career path, Impact, Public software, Quality, Maintenance, Diversity and inclusion
  • Effort: Small (estimated to be less than one person-year), Medium (1-3 person-years), or Large (more than 3 person-years)

If you are interested in research software and related policy, we hope you will help us maintain and augment this list, and that you might choose to work on a project. Perhaps an item on this list would be a good project for you to work on? Or a good class/independent study project?

Some of these activities include:

The Tenure Track Reimagined

  • Scope: Investigate how software contributions factor into academic promotions and tenure at a research organization.
  • Impact: Aims to influence policy changes by revealing disparities between traditional research outputs and software contributions.

Best Practices Unveiled

  • Scope: Document and share examples of successful recognition practices for research software contributions.
  • Impact: Provides a blueprint for academic institutions to integrate software contributions into their recognition systems.

Guidance Galore

  • Scope: Create guidance documents to assist stakeholders in faculty hiring and tenure evaluations.
  • Impact: Aims to reshape traditional practices, emphasizing the role of software in modern research.

Demographics Decoded

  • Scope: Conduct research to profile research software engineers (RSEs) demographically.
  • Impact: Provides a baseline for understanding RSEs, aiding in targeted policy and program development.

Job Descriptions Demystified

  • Scope: Create an online repository of research software-related job descriptions.
  • Impact: Helps individuals make informed career decisions and serves as a data source for secondary analysis.

Community Connect

  • Scope: Create a mailing list to foster community and information exchange among those interested in research software careers.
  • Impact: Aims to build a more robust and informed community in the research software domain.

Case Studies: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

  • Scope: Develop case studies revealing diverse career paths of RSEs.
  • Impact: Provides a holistic understanding of the field, helping RSEs navigate their career landscape.

Sector-Specific Insights

  • Scope: Compare RSE career paths in academia, industry, and government.
  • Impact: Offers actionable recommendations for individuals and policymakers across sectors.

Pay Parity Probed

  • Scope: Conduct a comparative economic study on RSE salaries versus other researchers.
  • Impact: Aims to identify disparities and inform organizational and funding decisions.

Research Software Templates for HR/Job Ads

  • Scope: Develop sample language that highlights the value of research software skills.
  • Impact: Bolsters organizational capacity and sets a standard for research software roles.

Visibility of Achievements

  • Scope: Help individuals claim software works on platforms like ORCID.
  • Impact: Empowers individuals to effectively promote themselves.

This is a small selection of the 44 potential activities that are now live, prepared as part of the URSSI Policy project. The activities outlined so far offer a multi-pronged approach to advancing the research software field. They aim to create a more equitable, transparent, and dynamic academic ecosystem. These activities are not just suggestions to help the research software field chart its course; they’re potential catalysts for change. They aim to redefine academic norms, making room for the computational cornerstone that is research software.  It’s time to give research software its due, not as a mere tool, but as a cornerstone of academic innovation. Ready to contribute or learn more? Check out the collection of activities and join the effort to advance research software.


The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: ThisisEngineering RAEng via Unsplash.

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About the author

Eric A. Jensen

Prof. Eric A. Jensen is a Visiting Research Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick. Jensen’s books include Doing Real Research: A Practical Guide to Social Research and Culture and Social Change: Transforming Society through the Power of Ideas. His PhD is in sociology from the University of Cambridge.

Daniel S. Katz

Professor Daniel S. Katz is Chief Scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Research Associate Professor in multiple departments at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.

Posted In: Impact