I am supervising a PhD student, enrolled at another University, where the co-supervisor is employed. We developed some useful software in her thesis and published 3 papers. In this development another member from the other university also participated. Now she will defend her thesis and leave, and it is not clear yet whether they will be interested in further development of this software.

I am really interested in this and I am the only one who knows how to use it in different contexts so I can foresee that I could get 30 publications with this tool in the next 5 years. I have the feeling (and I could obviously be wrong) that since the PhD student will leave, the colleagues from the other University will not work anymore on improving the software. But if I get new publications with the software, they have the right to be included as co-authors on all the papers even if they do not anything at all.

We are friends and we work together very well, but I think this is unfair. And I do not know how to present this situation to them. If I tell them exactly like this I feel they will get upset. So I am lost and I do not know what do here. Most optimal situation I can think is that on each new paper, tell them that I need to add some minor features to the paper (so that we work) and then I can feel they have the rights to be co authors of the paper. Are there better ways to handle this? I feel that we should have settled everything from the beginning, but it is now when I realize about this.

2 Answers 2


I don't see the problem here as one of co-authorship, but one of potential plagiarism. That is easy to avoid with proper citation. But it depends, also, on what you intend to do in the papers.

In a similar case, suppose you found the software and the original papers online or elsewhere and you do some derived work. The originals were done by people who are strangers to you. You cite the original and acknowledge the people who form the foundation. But you don't have to invite the strangers to be co-authors. I don't necessarily see a difference here.

If they don't participate in the new work they aren't co-authors of it.

But, it might be worth some effort to try to convince them to participate fully and, thus, become co-authors.

It would be a different case if you were re-writing the original papers.

As for the software, you have to be sure that you have an appropriate license to extend it. If you haven't ceded ownership to someone else, then you have joint ownership among the three(?) of you. Get their written permission to extend it, and list everyone as co-authors (co-creators) of the software. But the software and its use are separate things. If you find novel uses of the software without the help of the others, they aren't co-authors of the resulting papers.

  • when you say "If you find novel uses of the software without the help of the others, they aren't co-authors of the resulting papers.", is that your personal opinion or is that something legal or for which you can give some references? if this is written in law, that would for sure save me Dec 3, 2020 at 21:31
  • Actually, the "law" would work the other way. Laws don't "permit" things, but prohibit them. There is civil law about copyright infringement, but part of the very reason for IP law is to encourage extensions for the common good. It is complicated, of course. Euclid (and his heirs) has no claim on your mathematical work, for example.
    – Buffy
    Dec 3, 2020 at 21:42
  • then, is it there a law that prohibits a former co-author to be new author of a totally new work if he/she was not involved on the new discovery? Dec 3, 2020 at 21:49
  • No, that is a matter of custom only. But not a good custom in the minds of many academics. But, everyone needs to agree on authorship.
    – Buffy
    Dec 3, 2020 at 21:51

Many fields have rules for deciding who should be an author.

See for example http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html#two for Medicine.

This sets out four criteria which must be met to be an author.

Using those criteria it seems that if your colleagues don’t want to engage further with the software and resulting papers then they won’t meet criteria 2 and 3, and possibly not even 1. They won’t want to be on the hook for criterion 4.

It seems to me you need to find a similar set of criteria which are acknowledged by people working in your discipline and use those to have a conversation with your colleagues.

  • 1
    Is the software published? In that case, you can cite the software every time you use it, giving appropriate credit to the whole past author team. They get the - deserved - citation boost and you have no problems with gifted authorships. Plus, there may be additional people wanting to use it. Jan 18, 2020 at 22:24
  • @rhialto do something like ICMJE exist regarding authorship but for patents? Dec 3, 2020 at 21:35
  • @Opentheway no idea - I’ve never had much interest in patents. I’d take a guess that if there are any rules they’d (1) be legal ones and (2) would differ by country - so the best person to ask would be a lawyer.
    – rhialto
    Dec 4, 2020 at 0:28

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