Crowdsourcing Open Astrophysics Texts for Everyone

by Guest on July 27, 2015

Michael Zingale is a computational astrophysicist who enjoys blowing up stars and working on new algorithms to enable these simulations.  He is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook University on Long Island, NY.

Many of us have written notes for our classes or have searched online for notes written by our colleagues that we can use in our classes.  To help coordinate the effort of sharing and building texts for astrophysics topics, I started a github organization called the Open Astrophysics Bookshelf:

http://open-astrophysics-bookshelf.github.io/

The basic idea is that we, as a community, can crowdsource texts on astrophysics topics and make these freely available (via the Creative Commons license) for anyone to use.  And since we tend to use LaTeX for our scientific writing, these texts can be easily managed by git version control.

Essentially, the Open Astro Bookshelf is just a github (http://github.com) organization where different texts can be hosted as git repos.  There are two cases one can imagine for adding to the bookshelf.

  1. Many of us have our own set of notes (or a draft text) on a topic in our area of expertise, with varying degrees of polish.  In this case, you are starting off with something that is already substantially developed.  By hosting this text on the Open Astro Bookshelf, you gain input from the community—people can contribute changes via github pull requests.  These can be anything from typos, requests for clarification, figures, or entire chapters.  Since the work is hosted on github, all contributions will be noted in the git log, but a project can also include an author list noting the primary author, major contributors, other contributions, etc.
  2. There are some topics that we all know are in need of a good up-to-date text, for instance, to train students in techniques of our trade.  A Scientific Computing Cookbook is an example.  (Another idea suggested by a colleague is an AST 101 text).  In this case, we can start a text in a repo that is a stub, simply an outline, and rely on crowdsourcing to write the text from scratch.

Since everything is openly licensed, anyone can create mash-ups of the content to suit their needs.

In contrast to traditional books that go through a publisher, these texts are living.  They can continually be updated.  But don’t worry—we can still cite an “edition” via the git hash (it is quite straightforward to have a makefile put the git hash into the LaTeX source at compile time).

There are already some examples of each of the above cases up online.

I’ve moved my set of notes on Computational Astrophysical Hydrodynamics there, Mark Krumholz has put up his notes on Star Formation, and Ed Brown has contribute his Stellar Physics notes.  I’ve reached out to others in the field who have expressed interest in putting up their notes as well, so I hope for this to grow  quickly (especially now that it is summer).  I’d like to encourage anyone else who is interested to contact me, and we can setup a repo for your notes as well.

There is also an mostly empty template for a Scientific Computing Cookbook to share tips/techniques and good practices across our field—this latter one is a case where crowdsourcing can hopefully put something nice together.  This idea arose from discussions I’ve had with many of our computational astrophysics colleagues, and I’m told that a similar idea has surfaced among the astrobetter community.

As this is all new, there is still a lot to learn about how to best coordinate the different efforts.  I think that each text needs a lead (or leaders)—they set the tone of the text, make the initial organization issues, and will have the admin access to merge pull requests.  The number of people in this role can evolve with time as people become bigger contributors.  Anyone else in the community can interact via the normal github mechanism—pull requests and issues.

I’ve setup a mailing list to discuss these ideas as well:

open-astro-books@googlegroups.com

(you can subscribe here: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/open-astro-books )

Please don’t hesitate to contribute.  There is a lot of potential for us to build up a bookshelf that covers a wide range of topics in our field, that is freely available to everyone (students certainly don’t like paying for books), and is continually brought up to date.

What texts do you think are needed?

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