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I am in a bit of a bind. With institutional background, I've managed to formalize a novel way of approaching a problem. It is not really a groundbreaking thing, but it works, and I've only seen it as a high-level idea in blogposts so far. I have spent a year on this, wrote the whole code, and wrote a technical paper of 6 pages on my own.

Recently an otherwise not-involved academia professional from another institution offered his help in this project. We have a formal relationship with one of his coworkers, and we were grateful for his advice and help. He made three significant contributions (other than brainstorming, talking issues through):

  1. Uncovered a code error, which improved the results marginally, but was an objectively faulty line - my bad understanding of how a specific method worked.
  2. Added a feature which I didn't do on my own, because it was recommended us at an open workshop and he simply was faster in pushing the commit.
  3. He reformatted the code in a way which is more professional, but not better in any way and not useful at all for our purposes (notebook-like structure with markdown).

These took him probably 2-3 hours at the very most. No one asked him for these contributions, he did it on his own.

My boss decided that he will absolutely not be the second author, this is my work, at least 99.9%. Even before his inclusion the paper was in a publishable state. However I have no clear answer whether his contributions to the code are his intellectual properties. The only thing I can agree with is Item 1 from the list above, as I missed that completely when writing code. Item 2 is a thing I didn't have the option to work on as he was faster and I had other things to attend to. Item 3 is irrelevant, I will not use the code in that version and structure.

He is relaying to us that he will not "allow" (that doesn't mean a thing in real life) the publishing with his contributions. But the only clear contribution he made was Item 1. My questions to you:

Am I right in thinking he does not own concepts, especially ones which came from a 3rd party as a recommendation? Should I leave out his correction, rewrite it to achieve the same in a different manner, or just leave it in and don't care? What do you think about the whole situation?

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    How is your boss involved in this?
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 17:33
  • @Buffy he has the final word as head of the department.
    – KGYM
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 18:35
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    'he will not "allow" (that doesn't mean a thing in real life) the publishing with his contributions.' What exactly do you mean? He won't allow it to be published with his contributions included, regardless of whether or not he is listed as a co-author? It is not clear.
    – toby544
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 19:32
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    Your first two questions seem to be about points 1 and 2, but in reverse order. Could you make these two questions clearer, so we can see what part of his contributions they are referring to?
    – toby544
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 19:37
  • It seems to me that you could prepare a version of the paper that doesn't use contributions 2 and 3 from the other person, but you need to do something about 1; you shouldn't try to publish something that you know i wrong. The question is then: how important is the correction in 1? If it's minor, you'd probably just give an acknowledgment, like "I thank X for pointing out an error in the original version of the code Y and suggesting a correction." If it's major, then X would have to be a coauthor (and then you might as well include 2 and 3). Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 22:26

2 Answers 2

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First, you don't "own" concepts or ideas. They aren't "property". You are due recognition for discovering them and you can copyright things you write based on them. You don't really "own" code, either, though it is normally subject to copyright, which is a limited right to prevent others from exploiting it by republishing it (or some things closely related to it).

Second, the "time" spent on a work is immaterial to the value of the contribution. A few minutes of conversation can break the dam holding back essential insights. The work might not have been possible without that insight.

You have two options, I think. One is to publish your own work, not including contributions of the other person. In some fields this might be possible or not, (insights, again). The other is to include the work of the other person and credit them appropriately, probably with authorship in this case. This is based on your first two points. The third is a more mechanical (less creative) task in most cases.

Your boss seems to have a "time in the saddle" view of the worth of things. It is hard to fight an adamant boss, so you may just be left with publishing the version you had before the other person got involved. Publishing their work, even as part of yours, is plagiarism.

Well, a third option is just to bury the work, but that isn't really necessary.


Note that copyright law is written in such a way as to encourage extensions to published material. Patent law does the same, but in a different way. Both give limited (time and scope) to creators, but work to prevent the inhibition of further creation.

One sort of IP is "trade secrets" and there are something like ownership rights in these. But it really only applies if they are "stolen" in some formal sense through industrial espionage. Independent development is still possible.

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You seem to say you're explicitly not interested in what seems to be the meat of your question, which is simply an authorship dispute. I'd feel remiss not saying that it seems you and your "boss" seem to have, charitably put, miscommunicated with your colleague regarding authorship related to this project.

Giving a colleague commit access to a code repository and wordlessly accepting commits from them is a tacit indication from you that this level of contribution is within expectations. For instance, you say of your colleague's contribution of a "more professional" code format:

These took him probably 2-3 hours at the very most. No one asked him for these contributions, he did it on his own.

From my experience it's common to make contributions to projects where one expects to be a co-author even if "no one asked for" them. People occasionally feel strongly about what components are required to achieve their personal quality standard, regardless of their co-authors' level of investment.

My overall point is that you should approach this dispute professionally. Assume that your colleagues have all acted in good faith unless you have overwhelmingly clear evidence otherwise. Your phrasing in this question seems to assume unsubstantiated ill-intent on your colleague's part, an assumption I doubt will be helpful to you.

Should I leave out his correction, rewrite it to achieve the same in a different manner, or just leave it in and don't care?

Regardless of yours and your co-authors' decision on how to handle the authorship dispute, it's true at least in the US that a code's author holds copyright to the code. This is a serious enough problem that large open source projects require contributors to sign license agreements before accepting a contribution (https://ubuntu.com/legal/contributors/faq).

You simply do not have the legal right to copy, distribute, or use your colleague's code unless you have permission or obtain it in the future one way or another. If you cannot obtain permission and you need similar functionality, you could write code that performs the functionality yourself.

He is relaying to us that he will not "allow" (that doesn't mean a thing in real life) the publishing with his contributions.

Getting sued for copyright infringement is a thing in real life.

However the authorship dispute resolves, it would be very poor form from an academic conduct standpoint to omit a clear acknowledgement for their help. They pointed out a substantial error in your work that you missed.

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