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AAS Receives Sloan Foundation Grant to Advance Scientific Software

05 Jul 2016

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded the AAS a grant of $450,000 to enable researchers to discover and cite scientific software, track its use and impact, and preserve it for reuse and posterity.

It is impossible to think about doing astronomy without telescopes, but in considering the physical sciences more generally, the most essential tool in research isn’t hardware — it’s software. Whereas there are standards for archiving and citing scientific data, there are no corresponding standards for software. As a result, researchers often “reinvent the wheel” by writing code that already exists. Another common problem is version control, with scientists at different institutions unknowingly using different versions of the same program. With support from the Sloan Foundation, a team led by the AAS will spend the next year working to promote scientific software into an identifiable, citable, and preservable resource.

August (Gus) Muench, AAS Journals Data Scientist and co-principal investigator (PI) on the grant, explains: “We’ll focus on the needs of two of the most important groups in the scholarly ecosystem: authors of scholarly manuscripts and developers of scientific software. We will empower those writing research articles to provide citations and direct links to the software underlying their analysis, and we will make it easy for developers to create high-quality metadata describing their code and to attribute DOIs to their software packages.” The DOI, or digital object identifier, is like a serial number that uniquely and permanently identifies an individual piece of scholarly work, such as a peer-reviewed paper in a research journal.

The AAS publishes The Astronomical Journal (AJ) and The Astrophysical Journal (ApJ), ApJ Letters (ApJL), and ApJ Supplement Series (ApJS) in partnership with the Institute of Physics (IOP) Publishing in the United Kingdom. Every year, more papers refer not only to data, but also to software. Recognizing the need to improve the handling of software by the journals and the community more generally, the AAS organized a workshop in April 2015, funded by the Sloan Foundation, that attracted a diverse group of astronomy professionals representing universities, observatories, grant-making foundations, software repositories, journal publishers, and libraries. The idea for the new project was the workshop’s key outcome. Julie Steffen, AAS Director of Publishing and the other co-PI on the grant, says, “The Sloan Foundation is funding the AAS to take the lead on this because we represent the entire field and have a broader perspective than any particular group or institution or mission.”

Key partners in the project include the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO)/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), the CERN/Zenodo data repository, the GitHub software collaborative, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Wolbach Library. The team plans to provide an end-to-end technical solution to software discoverability and citation.

“Receiving this grant is extremely important for moving our publishing effort forward,” says Kevin B. Marvel, AAS Executive Officer. “Through a structured partnership with the community and the financial support of the Sloan Foundation, the AAS is now poised to enhance our ability to directly support our mission by establishing norms for handling software in scientific publishing and curating it for posterity.”

Rick Fienberg
AAS Press Officer
+1 202-328-2010 x116
Julie Steffen
AAS Director of Publishing
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August (Gus) Muench
AAS Journals Data Scientist
+1 202-328-2010 x118
The American Astronomical Society (AAS), established in 1899, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. Its membership (approx. 8,000) also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects now comprising contemporary astronomy. The mission of the American Astronomical Society is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe, which it achieves through publishing, meeting organization, education and outreach, and training and professional development.