Automatically Create a Webpage of Articles for Astro-ph Discussion with PHP and Python.

by Kelle on February 15, 2010

Here is a guest post by Ian Crossfield, a third-year graduate student at UCLA working on the infrared characterization of exoplanet atmospheres, and Nate Ross, a first-year graduate student working on various projects relating to the history of star formation in the universe.

AstrocoffeeLike many astro groups, UCLA has had an informal astro-coffee discussion for years where people discuss the latest preprints hot off the presses. However, a barrier for some participants has been the unpredictability of the topics presented, especially for new graduate students. With an eye toward giving advance notice of what papers might be of particular interest (and in the spirit of entering the 21st century) we wrote up a PHP/Python package to automatically allow web submission of articles and generate this website. Read on to find out how to implement this at your institution.

Image Credit: Rick Harrison, OSU Alumni Magazine

In the hope that other departments might find this a useful tool, we’ve made all the code for the site available here, along with installation instructions and a bit of basic commentary. Briefly: a PHP-enabled web site lists submitted articles, has an input form for submitting additional articles of interest, and upon submission the site automatically updates the HTML/PHP code. Items can be subsequently deleted from the list using a password-protected PHP text editor. If you try it out, let us know how it goes and what improvements could be made!

The implementation isn’t the most elegant (or, probably, the most secure), and sites like those at UC Santa Cruz and Ohio State show that there’s no shortage of ways to design these tools. Nonetheless, in the few weeks since implementing this new setup we’ve already seen a substantial increase in grad student participation, so we’re quite satisfied thus far.

Any other good ideas for organizing the astro-coffee discussion? Let’s here them in the comments.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam Ginsburg February 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

This is a great tip! This is exactly the sort of site we’d been planning on building here at CU (refurbishing our reading room at the moment).

One feature I’d like, and I think can implement but haven’t yet, is including a figure or figure link alongside the astro-ph article. If the coffee is held in a room with a projector or TV, it’s nice to be able to display the key point from the article for discussion.


2 Iva Momcheva February 15, 2010 at 6:14 pm

I had made a PHP page for the Arizona Astro-coffee a few years back but it never got used: the postings were few because people would usually check astro-ph half an hour before coffee and pick papers on the spot, participants thought it was cumbersome to check yet another site and also the form was only accessible from within the department (PHP security issues). I’d be interested to hear ideas on how to make the web-page format popular with the astro-coffee participants.


3 Tim Arnold February 15, 2010 at 9:17 pm

At Arizona, some young idealistic graduate students are trying to revitalize our lackluster coffee. In hopes to facilitate this, I created:

All articles (except updated or cross-listed) are displayed, and users can “vote” in a crude Digg-style. The hope is that interesting articles will percolate to the top, and suppressed ones will fall to the bottom.

Its utility and popularity have yet to be determined.


4 Ivan Zolotukhin February 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

We in Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow do that using private Google Group. Those who wish to make a small report or discuss some recent article simply add it along with few notes (think a key points) to the dedicated group web-page. We “make a coffee” once a week in a room with a projector though.


5 Ian J. Crossfield February 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Adam — We browse from the site to the papers at coffee, so all pertinent text and figures can be displayed. If you decide to use this package for your new CU site, I’d be glad to help you get it up and running. Either way, good luck!

Iva — We definitely had resistance in our department re. an internal-only coffee page, and had to negotiate with our IT staff to get a public site set up. We’re promoting our site not so much as “yet another site” to check, but rather as a site for people to post what they want to discuss during coffee.


6 Ryan Hamilton April 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm

In case anyone else is using the code and is interested, I’ve rewritten/changed a sizable chunk of Ian’s original code with some nice enhancements — automatic archiving of previous submitted papers, improved scraping for arXiv, Nature, and ADS links, and a minimal commenting system. It should be ready to just unpack and go after changing a few little details, but if not please let me know. You can find the code at

This was a fun way to force myself to learn python!


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