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I'm being asked (by my advisors) to include a person I don't even know as author of my new papers, in which they haven't done anything. The reason seems to be that my work is based on source code that was written by the three of them in the past. These people have already published several papers that rely on this implementation. I don't think that if I write a different version on top of their code I owe them authorship. I have done this before using libraries and other open source software. I have never included the authors of the code as co-authors of my papers, so I don't see how this situation is different. Still, I'm worried that they might not let me use the code to complete my implementation. Interestingly, I had already started an implementation with a different version they gave me from some other student, that was too different from what I had to do, which is why I asked for this other version, but they never asked me to include this other student as co-author and they're only doing it now with this other person. Is my reasoning correct? What can I do?

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    How, exactly, are you "using" their code?
    – Buffy
    Mar 2 at 22:54
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    You cannot make them coauthors if you don't know them. Because you at least have to ask for their permission, and send them the manuscript for their approval.
    – Karl
    Mar 2 at 22:56
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    I am implementing a different algorithm as a component of an existing system, let's call it A. Part of the algorithm is already "solved" in A, but this person didn't write any specific code for my project. Before asking him for the code of A, my advisors had sent me the code of another system, B, that is also a variation of A, and they didn't say anything about authorship (B was made by a different person). I suspect that the author of A may be the one who's trying to get a free authorship Mar 2 at 23:19
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    I don't know that I would read so much into the A/B distinction and use this to accuse A of angling for free authorships; it may be that if you were using B your advisors would have suggested offering them authorship, too, at this stage of your project, but you didn't end up using B so the author of B is irrelevant.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 2 at 23:23
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    Generally speaking, it is just easier to do what your advisor says. The debate over whether what you are doing is novel enough to be new work or just extends the work could go on quite a while. I was told my Plan B project for my master's had enough content to be a Plan A Thesis, even though I was IMPLENTING a pre-existing algorithm (and didn't try to hide the fact). Clearly, at minimum the earlier work should be referenced clearly. Mar 3 at 15:56

2 Answers 2

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In theory, you would simply cite their previous work implementing the software in your paper rather than crediting them as authors, especially if that software is broadly available - this is what someone else from another research group would do.

In practice, if this is software developed within a research group (rather than software made broadly available and used by others), writing key software elements of a project can be considered a strong intellectual contribution to that piece of work, even if that contribution is spread across multiple papers, and therefore may be treated as worthy of authorship. From your perspective up until now, you're responsible for the whole of the paper, but from your advisors' perspective perhaps they see multiple people working on aspects of the research question: perhaps they as the advisor/PI are setting some overall research goals/direction, someone is writing software to implement a particular algorithm, someone else (you) is using that software to test a particular theory, etc. You may not have met them (yet), but your advisors have. I've certainly had coauthors whom I did not know personally, because we've worked on different aspects of a project under the direction of someone else.

I'd say that if they have done no additional work towards your project and everything you are using of theirs has already been published separately, that would be reason to put them into the "cite them" category. If they have done additional work towards your project that has not been published, though, then I would strongly consider offering them authorship, even if they have done this work before you interacted with them. However, that offer of authorship should come with other responsibilities of authorship, including assisting in drafting and reviewing the manuscript and approving its final form. That is, they should not simply be given authorship without you knowing them, but that you might owe them the opportunity to be more fully involved in the paper before you publish.

Your advisors should help guide you on which of these choices is more appropriate, so I think it's fine to raise your concerns but to also keep an open mind to their thoughts of what is appropriate.

I think many people who post here on Academia.SE believe too much that having other authors credited on their paper dilutes their own contribution to the paper in the eyes of others. While that may be true for some fields, in others it doesn't particularly matter if you add some 4th and 5th authors. I would avoid outright "gift authorship" where people are credited as authors for added prestige or to let some senior academic collect paper trophies, but I think it can be a fair reward for people who do the trench work of building tools useful for the research that others do.

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    1+ for "trench work" ;)
    – Karl
    Mar 2 at 23:00
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    They didn't contribute anything towards my project. It's software developed within the group but to treat it differently and use privative code to get authorship instead of citations... feels kind of toxic and possessive to me... maybe it's just me? I'm very keen on libre software philosophy. And I relate to the feeling that my contribution feels diluted. I actually tried a lot of things and I know how to implement what's missing, but the system lacks any tests at all and I wanted to save time instead of duplicating work that has already been done Mar 2 at 23:28
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    "They didn't contribute anything towards my project" seems objectively false - they've contributed the code that you're basing your paper on. I'm not saying that grants them authorship, but I think it's important to be realistic about how your paper relies on the work of others. That's okay, most academic work does! We don't need to work alone to make valuable contributions.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 2 at 23:32
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    I didn't phrase it right, but I was trying to reply that the situation applies to this case: "I'd say that if they have done no additional work towards your project and everything you are using of theirs has already been published separately" Mar 3 at 0:40
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    @user2059990 Got it. Another thing to think about is the general usefulness of the software. If it's something where they can release it and lots of people will get use out of it, then it probably makes most sense for them to do that, and to get credit for it through citations. If, however, it's fairly niche and is only likely to be used in a couple publications, then it's possible the effort they've put into the software if you "amortize" that effort over the existing papers plus yours it's appropriate to consider it a substantial contribution to all.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 3 at 1:37
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Another perspective that could be worth considering is the contributions that these new authors may bring. You state that they have not done anything for your project, but if they agree to be co-authors they could contribute with critical reading and discussion on your manuscript before submission. Remember that the work is not finished before it is published.

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    If they make academic contributions to the paper then they can be listed as a co-author at that point. But the potential of that happening is no reason to list them as a co-author now. Mar 3 at 6:58
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    Considering they haven't even replied to my emails nor to the requests by my advisors for more than 6 months, I am beginning to assume that they may not be interested in this possibility. Mar 3 at 15:51
  • Then I would say that they can't be included as co-authors, Mar 3 at 16:04

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