Thursday, 25 May 2017

Releasing research software

How should researchers be releasing their software?

The BBSRC together with the Software Sustainability Institute and Elixir-UK recently held a workshop to find out. This was the "Developing Software Licensing Guidance for BBSRC Workshop" (April 2017). The BBSRC wanted to ask the community what guidance it should be providing for grant applicants, grant reviewers and the developers and users of research software.

Here's some of the points that were raised during the day: 


Who owns the software? University academics often have contracts that say that everything we do belongs to the uni, even if it's in the evenings or weekends. Students, on the other hand tend to own their own IP. On collaborative projects, especially those collaborating with businesses, the ownership of software becomes more complex again. If the software is truly open source, then hopefully multiple people will contribute ('random strangers on the internet'). Who owns it then?


Three main options: very permissive, copyleft or commercial. If you need to choose a software license, some universities are well supported by technology transfer staff who understand all the implications and some are not. There are websites to help people choose, but the issues are complex and so far they haven't helped me choose. The consensus for permissive licenses seemed to be that while MIT was good (simple, easy to read and understand), the Apache 2.0 license actually deals with accepting contributions from other developers in future ("Unless You explicitly state otherwise, any Contribution intentionally submitted for inclusion in the Work by You to the Licensor shall be under the terms and conditions of this License, without any additional terms or conditions."). If you don't use this license then you may have to use a contributer licensing agreement and that can scare off the casual patch submitter. The "for academic use only" kind of license was widely seen to be awful, restricting future collaboration, restricting project expansion and being unclear about who is and isn't an academic.

Software is produced at different scales

There are quick scripts, solid code, and whole platforms. The BBSRC will be funding work that produces all three types of software. It wants all grant-holders to think about how they will release their software and support the creation of software. We know that documenting, testing and packaging is time consuming. How do we ensure that projects allow time for this? How can software be cited properly (see Software citation principles)? Is there any such thing as a 'throwaway script'? Will the project management team include someone who knows about software?

Existing advice

There is a collection of existing advice from various places about how to choose licenses and release software.
The release of software as an output of research is clearly an issue that is being raised by multiple organisations now and it's great to see software being taken seriously. 2017 will see the second Research Software Engineers Conference (RSE2017) and a June 2016 Dahgstul Workshop produced an Engineering Academic Software Manifesto, containing pledges such as
  • I will make explicit how to cite my software.
  • I will cite the software I used to produce my research results.
  • When reviewing, I will encourage others to cite the software they have used.
and more. The BBSRC now has the task of pulling together all the discussion from the workshop and other places and creating a guidance document to help grant applicants, reviewers and panellists, and also the software developers. This will then become part of the grant proposal process along with other docs such as the data management plan, pathways to impact, justification of resources, etc.