Sustainability lessons for research infrastructure

Despite the availability of an impressive range of online systems and resources for UK researchers, a recent JISC-funded Community Engagement Report has identified a number of barriers to their adoption. These include unconstructive competition for research funding, undifferentiated reluctance to sharing research resources, and inadequate long-term provision of software development support. Let's take a closer look at some of these barriers, and explore how experience from open development practice could be used to alleviate or remove them.

Introduction

The technical infrastructure built to support UK researchers in the age of expanding access to online resources and tools (also known as e-Infrastructure) consists of a combination of systems and services designed to improve cross-subject collaboration and foster new ways of conducting research (also referred to as e-Research). This is the result of what was seen in the past few years as the urge to build an appropriate e-Infrastructure for conducting e-Research. However UK researchers continue to show some reticence in extensively using the services and facilities on this extremely well-populated list. The main barriers to their wide adoption appear to be social and organisational rather than technological. We suggest that learning and applying some of the key lessons from open source development practice could improve the current situation.

We approach this topic in three related documents: a general discussion and two more detailed insights, Community Lessons for Research Infrastructure and Sustainability Lessons for Research Infrastructure (this document), which both include quotes from recent interviews with UK researchers and service providers. In this document, we highlight a number of sustainability lessons from open development practice that could help to remove barriers to engagement with UK e-Infrastructure systems and services.

Understand software sustainability in broader terms

The sustainability of academic projects (and of their outputs, including software) is understood mainly in terms of securing further funding. However in open development communities sustainability is understood in broader terms. Expanding beyond the initial team and harnessing contributions from all potentially interested parties are key features of the open development method. Support beyond initial funding may come in various forms, such as user or developer time spent on the project, sponsorship from interested corporate members, or paid support for the maintenance of the product being developed. By adopting a similarly open approach, academic projects can maximise their chances of becoming sustainable in the long term.

Acknowledge the prototype status of academic project software

The sustainability of research infrastructure tools and services is often mentioned as a potential source of concern for researchers. One aspect of this concern is the reliability of the technical solutions offered by academic projects with time-limited funding. This is critical to the researchers’ decision to adopt them:

'So you’re working with products that come out of research rather than out of a software factory, and often these will have problems or they’ll be half finished or they don’t really fit together yet [...] it's difficult to decipher what the risk is before you start.'

To address this concern, it should be made clear by the projects that most of this software is not yet ready for general use, and requires significant time and skill from users to actually deploy:

'Most academic software seems to have the lifespan of about a year before it disappears, or doesn’t get updated, or something, and we just can’t work like that.'

The initial development costs associated with building research infrastructure tools are usually covered by time-limited research grants. Therefore, their completeness and usability are limited. Additionally, their adoption by early users often generates further requirements, and the need to provide ongoing maintenance. The project simply cannot offer this:

'It’s difficult because a research group [...] has a number of post docs and PhD students and it’s not a software engineering company. So when you finally deliver something it's going to be a prototype, it's never going to be a finished product. But they then start depending on it, and then the problem arises, because you don’t have the funding or even the capacity to maintain [it ...] whenever they want to change something, and they don’t have the money to do the same thing, because they can’t just say, oh here’s an extra amount of money just to add this feature that doesn’t exist, so it's going to be very limited.'

Avoid relying fully on central development support

Teams tasked with building and maintaining research infrastructure tools traditionally work in closed environment projects. The technology or software developed is kept safely within the confines of the team, and no collaboration is envisaged or sought from outside. One may argue that there is nothing special about this, since many of the tools and resources researchers use are produced in this way. However, the e-Research paradigm places much emphasis on sharing and collaboration. One would therefore expect it to be possible for these teams to have in place some mechanisms by which external contribution could be harnessed to the benefit of the entire research infrastructure community. Software produced in this way could be released under an open source licence, and well-documented paths with contributor licence agreements in place could be devised. These could be used to develop, for example, user-requested features that the service was unable to address by itself.

For instance, one researcher mentions some issues encountered when using GridSAM, a job submission interface for distributed resource management systems, which was initially developed at the London e-Science Centre and further expanded by developers at the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute (OMII-UK):

'Unfortunately we found that GridSAM has some problems, and unfortunately GridSAM is no longer actively developed [...]. Depending on what happens over the next 3 or 4 months we’ll probably either start coming up with [...] solutions that work better for our purposes or try and fix GridSAM ourselves, I would guess. I mean [OMII has] been trying very hard, but obviously it’s very difficult because the developers are employed on something completely different, so it’s quite hard to get the support for a lot of the OMII software, although they are trying hard to improve that. Unfortunately most of the software that’s in the OMII stack isn’t actually finished, that's the main sort of problem.'

The OMII software development model this researcher refers to is one in which early-stage software from selected research projects is 'hardened' and supported, up to the point that research outputs are delivered. The code is released under an open source licence, so that in theory anybody can provide contributions. In practice, however, without community mechanisms to encourage and reward external contribution, this is rarely the case. The fact that OMII provides a certain level of development and support for a limited period seems good enough for some researchers. However, as other respondents point out, it may be that these issues need to be addressed in a more fundamental way:

'The way in which funding is provided for projects developing software may need to be more radically changed, so that they start producing self-sustainable products rather than just prototypes.'

Build and publish a project sustainability plan

One issue that OSS Watch often hears about when consulting with academic projects is that of continuation funding. Securing follow-up funding at the end of the project is perceived as a recognition of its success. Failing to do so is seen as an expression of the project's inability to persuade funders that what they have done is valuable.

However, this is clearly not the only way open development teams operate. Support beyond initial funding may come in various other forms. These include user or developer time spent on the project, sponsorship from interested corporate members, or paid support for the maintenance of the product being developed. All of these alternative revenue streams and any other ways in which the project sees itself being maintained and supported are put together in a sustainability plan. If this plan is made available online, the vision for the project becomes clearer. Its transparency and accountability also increase, and potential new members can better plan their engagement with the community.

Expanding beyond the initial team and harnessing contributions from interested participants are key features of the open development method. If the tools and processes used by project members on a daily basis are made transparent and appealing, and the adoption path into the community is clear, welcoming and informative, new contributors will join in. They will be attracted by the prospect of being part of a potentially successful self-sustainable project. Some of these contributors will want to negotiate a fee for their contributions. Others may be paid by various employers to work on particular aspects of the product. Still others may be attracted by the technical challenge, the prospect of acquiring kudos, or simply by the opportunity to improve or showcase their skills. All these and other accepted forms of engaging with external collaborators can be considered and specified in the project documentation.

Foster research collaboration from an early stage

Working in an open fashion is something that both project developers and researchers can be encouraged to learn. An important condition for success in open development projects is having something runnable and testable to play with as early as possible. This can mean sharing a product that is imperfect or incomplete. In line with the famous 'release early and often' open source formula, this practice often attracts invaluable early feedback and builds people's confidence in the project. Learning to work together from an early stage on imperfect products may also help researchers to become more effective members of the emergent research infrastructure communities.

Understand incentives for research collaboration

Collaboration readiness is key for the success of online scientific collaboration. Collaboration readiness indicates that the participants have a motivation to work together and trust each other. They also have a sense of collective efficacy, beyond merely pushing together to fulfill the mandate of the funders. It is therefore important to understand the researchers' incentives for collaboration. These include the pooling of skills, effort and resources likely to improve the quality of the research process. It is equally important to understand the barriers to collaboration, most of which are directly or indirectly related to funding. As one interviewee put it:

'To a certain degree research centres are in competition. So there is a certain reluctance I think in individual research centres within the same discipline sharing what they’re doing. They may well be bidding for a research project in competition with each other.'

Research is indeed competitive, and the pressure exercised by the 'publish or perish' demands of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) further affects researchers' willingness to work collaboratively:

'[RAE] encourages individuals to publish independently, to keep things secret while they can be many advantages to their career, no matter if they have been funded publicly or not, because by doing that they appear to be better by the criteria used for measurement of the research assessment exercise. That’s a major cultural problem, because it makes it too difficult to persuade scientists to be open with their data, they fear losing it, and therefore their current position.'

One way to counter artificial funding-based competition leading to secrecy and closed-doors authorship is to share from the early stage of a project. At this point, a researcher's sense of ownership is still relatively low. Inviting competitors to collaborate in the open would pave the way to turning mutually exclusive competition into mutually enriching collaboration. Rival individuals and research centres could therefore be encouraged to set up strategic alliances between groups who agree to write grant proposals, share project work and publish research outputs together.

Consider sharing research infrastructure

Sharing certain types of research data is clearly not always possible, but research collaboration need not necessarily be understood only in terms of sharing data. In fact, by emphasising the distinction between sharing research data and sharing research infrastructure, one can better clarify the levels on which community members are interested and prepared to collaborate.

Some university departments are faced with the prospect of pooling together research infrastructure resources in order to reduce overlapping costs:

'I think we may look to share facilities between departments here as a way of increasing power and keeping things locally managed. That would be my guess for the next five years at least.'

For instance, departments may find it useful to have all their high-power computing needs arranged locally in order to avoid overheads associated with using the National Grid Service (NGS). However, barriers to sharing computing power are likely to appear at both technical and administrative levels. In this case, policies and support for resource-sharing need to be provided, otherwise the initiatives of individual researchers are unlikely to succeed:

'I looked [...] to see if you could offer [a local compute resource] as part of an NGS resource, and it was too difficult for me to get that put on and go via that way to submitting jobs on to it, because the way I understood it is that we all put our machines on it and then the NGS would be a much bigger computer, so I looked to try to see whether the resources that we had we could stick on it, and actually there were various political barriers to doing that [...] [Parts of the University] harbor resources basically and stick up barriers towards their open use, and I guess that’s probably true about any university, I don’t know.'

The experience of research units that share resources locally, if documented and disseminated through the appropriate communication channels, can be extremely beneficial to other institutions that are contemplating similar arrangements. The national service providers themselves - the NGS in this case - are also likely to find this feedback extremely useful, as it could help them to design and provide a better service.

Conclusion

A number of open development sustainability lessons could help to remove barriers to engaging with research infrastructure tools and services. These include building and disseminating a sustainability plan, avoiding fully relying on short-lived centrally provided development support, and fostering collaboration between researchers from an early stage. The adoption of such lessons by researchers and service providers is likely to foster a deeper sense of community across research infrastructure in the UK and ultimately enhance its effectiveness.

References

Related information from OSS Watch

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OSS Watch is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and is situated within the Research Technologies Service (RTS) of the University of Oxford.