Code citation was made possible by research software engineers in Germany and the Netherlands

4 Nov 2021 - 6 min

Block letters that spell Citation

Did you ever have to cite your work when writing an essay for school? Or are you a researcher who can attest to the importance of being cited in research papers? Or perhaps you are a journalist who wants to cite your source to support your story? If you can relate to any of these scenarios, then we can all agree that giving credit where credit is due is important. Well, did you know that up until recently, it was very difficult for software developers to receive credit for their code or for others to cite their work? Thanks to a group of research software engineers in Germany and right here at the Netherlands eScience Center, code citation is now possible! How did they make this happen? For the story behind the scenes, read on.

In August 2021, GitHub launched a citation feature that enables researchers around the globe to cite code from more than 65+ million developers on the platform. Before this, there was simply no formal mechanism to cite code. Soon after, many other major platforms and tools, including ZenodoGitLabZoteroJabRef, followed suit.  

GitHub’s CEO Nathaniel Friedman announces the launch of the platform’s newly built-in citation feature
Zotero announces its adaption of GitHub’s new citation feature

What makes this news exciting for us at the eScience Center is the fact that our very own Senior Research Software Engineer, Jurriaan Spaaks, together with Research Software Engineer Stephan Druskat in Germany, are the two brains who brought this to life. Recognizing the need and desire of developers around the world, together, they created the Citation File Format. Using this format, developers can now create a CITATION.cff file which provides information on how they want others to cite their work.  

“The Citation File Format allows for the accurate citation of software. When GitHub chose to enable the citation of software, it sent a strong message to the tight-knit developer community that research software is something worthy of citation, and therefore deserves credit, just like research papers and datasets,” says Jurriaan. 

The pair didn’t stop there and decided to take it to the next level. To help research software engineers create correct CITATION.cff files, Jurriaan also developed an online initializer service, cffinit, of which researchers and developers can now take advantage. And voilà! Rather than reading through the instruction manual on the Citation File Format, cffinit will act as a spell and grammar checker to ensure researchers and developers are following all the necessary steps to cite code accurately. Who should be regarded as author? What is the name of the software? What label should developers use to uniquely identify the version of the software?  

“It’s also a major step towards recognition of the work of software developers and research software engineers everywhere. GitHub’s new feature would not be possible without the Citation File Format,” Jurriaan goes on to say.

How does this contribute to the greater national agenda in the world of academic research? This news comes after the VSNUNFUKNAWNWO and ZonMw officially acknowledged the need to recognize and reward the work of academic staff by placing less emphasis on the number of publications and focusing relatively more on other research activities as well. This implies more recognition of research software. It’s also something the eScience Center puts great store by. It seeks to get developing research software onto the Dutch national agenda, including the National Programme Open Science, to promote the role of research software engineers and their contributions to the research community. 

So, to give credit where credit is due, congratulations to Jurriaan, Stephan and the extended team who worked on this innovation. Their determination to get this onto the radars of platforms like GitHub, with others following suit, will now benefit research software engineers worldwide.  

A special thank you is also in order to Niels Drost who suggested the Citation File Format as potentially helpful for getting information from developers’ GitHub repositories into places where that information is needed, like a website, publication or content managing system. And finally, to those who helped implement various tools in the Citation File Format ecosystem: Robert HainesArfon SmithFaruk DiblenStefan Verhoeven, and Jesús García González

To stay up to date on the Citation File Format, visit their website. For more information about our approach to the Research Software Directory, a content management system that already makes use of the CITATION.cff, click here. To learn about some of the incredible multi-disciplinary projects we work on at the eScience Center, take a look at our current portfolio.