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I'm involved in a long collaborative software development project. The project required continuous effort because the goal is very ambitious and the project started from scratch.

However, some early collaborators contributed to the projects very little, one was an undergraduate who didn't have the skills to contribute significantly to the project and the other was a post-doc who caused more harm before ultimately leaving the group.

My question is do these early collaborators deserve authorship on any publication that may arise from this project? If no, at what point would someones contribution constitute authorship?

Here are some thoughts:

Pro: They did technically contribute to an early prototype, and I wouldn't want to be left out of a paper that I contributed to, but couldn't ultimately see the end of because of other circumstances.

Con: The project has substantially changed since they contributed to the point and it's debatable it's even the same project anymore, as practically all the software has changed. More importantly to me, it dilutes the effort of the authors who contributed significantly more, and this can be discouraging.

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    Personally, I would offer authorship to anyone who contributed. (They may choose to decline.) In my field, mathematics, the general assumption is that every author contributes equally to a project but naturally this is not completely true in practice, and possibly someone or the other is ‘coasting’. But over time this sort of thing should even out.
    – Aru Ray
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 6:33
  • Especially in the case of the undergraduate you should consider naming him/her in the acknowledgements instead of listing him/her as an author. This is quite common in my peer-group, as the undergrads commonly only did "part of the dirty work" without contributing significantly to the manuscript. In my opinion, this is an elegant solution which leaves everyone satisfied.
    – pbaer
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 10:15

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That's always an awkward situation. The bar to "deserve" authorship is generally considered to be pretty low: If you intellectually contributed to the project, you should be a co-author. At the same time, people generally have the expectations that all co-authors continue to contribute to the paper in some form or other till the end, for example through the writing and proof-reading process.

So if someone helped develop an algorithm or worked on produce the data for the paper, they probably should be a co-author. But it is not unheard of to write an email to them and say

As an author, there is also an expectation that you continue to work with us on writing the paper; I recognize that you have moved on in your career, and if you feel like you don't want to be on the paper because you don't have the time to work on it, that's ok with us as well."

That's an awkward email to write, but sometimes it's necessary to either get a person to contribute more, or remove themselves from the paper.

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  • Thanks I would upvote but I don't enough reputation yet
    – no-trace
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 17:17
  • What if a person materially helps in experiments that suggest something interesting, but has no expertise with regard to subsequent experiments which are done to explore that. Is it possible for someone to be a co-author for parts of a paper, but disclaim any association with other parts?
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 16:30
  • @supercat No. Authorship is for the whole paper. You cannot be an author for only part of it. It is, however, not uncommon to write a sequence of papers on different aspects of a problem, and the authors for parts 1, 2, ... being different. Commented Apr 6, 2022 at 23:34
  • @WolfgangBangerth: If a co-author worked with the main author of a paper in doing experiments, data collection, and analysis, but then reached conclusions that contradict those of the main author, what options would the co-author have if the main author doesn't want to be contradicted in his own paper? Could the co-author insist that the paper be split?
    – supercat
    Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 5:25
  • @supercat Nobody can force a co-author to do anything. If you can't convince a co-author, you're out of options. Your only choice at that time is to say that you can't be an author on the paper. Commented Apr 7, 2022 at 17:54

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