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My company has tasked me with writing a paper to be published on some of our software. The what and why isn't particularly relevant to the story except that it's purely software driven approach. No major dataset or time consuming experiment. All the relevant time was spent on software development. When the code was originally written (some of it years ago) I was only a junior developer with minimal contributions to these sections of the software.

The original author left the company several months ago and I'm now the technical lead. I feel more then qualified to write a good paper on the technical aspects as I've spent plenty of time with the code base. It feels wrong to make myself the author on the paper though as it's not really my work or ideas. When had it been written months ago with the original architect they would have been the author. Worth noting that none of the paper has been written yet and none of the major contributors are left at the company. High turnover what can you do.

What is the accepted way of giving credit to the original inception of the idea and developers, but who can't be part of the paper authorship? Are they still listed as authors?

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    Why can't they be part of the "paper authorship", by which I guess you essentially mean "paper writing"? Is this company policy or a refusal by the contributors?
    – Anyon
    Jan 21 at 19:34
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    Company policy, since they've left the company they don't want them anywhere near the code. There might be a situation where they help author the paper without looking at the code base, but it's been awhile since they've written it, and the management hoops to allow that would be nightmarish. Company would prefer authorship stays internal since they own all the rights to the software. Jan 21 at 19:41
  • And yeah I mean paper authorship in the since of paper writing. I'm not very academic myself, but from what I'm reading online "authors" are supposed to help write the paper and authorship carries a lot of value in the academic world. The original architect is a pretty well known paper author in our field. Jan 21 at 19:43
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    Reading this again it doesn't seem to be about academia. Maybe it belongs at the workplace. workplace.stackexchange.com
    – Buffy
    Jan 21 at 20:44
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    @Buffy This question seems to be answerable by either academia or workplace. To me it seems to be somewhere in the middle and require expertise from both sides.
    – Louic
    Jan 21 at 20:50

2 Answers 2

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Authorship in academia does not literally mean "writing the paper". Authorship means:

  • having made contributions to the research (how large a contribution needs to be for authorship depends on the field)
  • having read and agreed with the contents of the publication

From a purely academic standpoint, your ex-colleague should at least be a co-author of the paper. Of course you cannot add them without their permission, so you should contact them, see if they agree to have their name listed as co-author, and share the draft of the paper for their approval before submitting it for publication.

Of course you should have permission from your company before sharing the paper. Because the published paper will be public, there should be no reason not to share it with your ex-colleague. This does not mean they require access to the current code, just that they agree with what is written.

Finally, it seems odd to publish an academic paper that is exclusively about software without making the software available. For all the reader knows the software consists of a magic wand and some tea-leaves. Readers should be able to reproduce the results, and if they can do so without the software, so can your ex-colleague.

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  • You seem to have assumed, with little or no evidence, that the software was written in the context of a research project as opposed to a product. For proprietary products, the rules are not the same as in academia. Contacting the other person should be approved by company management in this sort of case.
    – Buffy
    Jan 21 at 20:42
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    Sure, it should be approved by management - I added this to my answer. But simply ignoring the person who did most of the work would be wrong. And it remains questionable whether the results are actually publishable without sharing the software - of course we cannot tell from here whether this is indeed the case here, but it seems odd to be allowed to publish something (making it public), while not being able to co-author the paper with the ex-colleague.
    – Louic
    Jan 21 at 20:45
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Contact potential co-authors at the beginning of the project

Firstly, it is great that you are thinking about this --- too many people start projects like this without thinking about the credit they ought to give to other contributors.

To avoid getting into a mess, or an authorship dispute, I recommend you take the time to contact relevant contributors and agree on authorship terms before you start writing this paper. If you are the one writing the paper then it is certainly reasonable for you to be an author, even if you had little input into the code. Similarly, if there are other programmers who contributed to the code, it is reasonable for them to be co-authors even if they don't add much to the paper. (I'm assuming that your paper is about the code, such that contribution to the code constitutes a significant contribution to the paper.) If their contribution falls below a level that warrants co-authorship, you might still want to add them to an acknowledgement in the paper. As the other answer here points out, there are all sorts of contributions to a paper that can warrant authorship --- it is not always just about who wrote the actual paper. So you will need to make a judgment about what contributions warrant authorship.

The best thing to do here is to make a list of all the people who you think have made a sufficient contribution to the code to warrant co-authorship, and then contact them to see if they would like to be co-authors on the paper. If in doubt, contact them anyway and see if they think they've contributed enough to warrant co-authorship or acknowledgement. (You might ask them to have a hand in writing/reviewing the paper, or you might decide that they warrant co-authorship credit even without this.) Have a meeting with all of them and make sure you all agree on the authorship of the paper --- i.e., you all agree on whose names will be on the paper and the order in which they will appear. Also make sure that everyone knows and is comfortable with their role on the paper going forward.

If you are unable to contact one of the contributors, or if they are non-responsive, then you probably cannot add them as a co-author (journals generally require all co-authors to consent to publication, except possibly in the case when a co-author is deceased or incapacitated). In this case you could add the person to the acknowledgements instead of as a co-author, and note their contribution to the code.

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