I’m writing my master’s thesis about visual automated testing, which will be summarized to paper.

In my theoretical study, I reference other people’s work, papers and study about this topic. Meanwhile, there are some new commercial products that have the same functionality as my research project and they provide a 30-day free trail.

Now my questions are:

  • Should I reference those commercial products too in my theoretical study or should I just ignore them?

  • If I reference them, do I have to add a comparison of results between those products and my implementation in my practical study?

  • There are no publications on the commercial product I found. So could I publish a paper on my work and if yes, should I ignore those methods?

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    Just a note that you should read in details the conditions of the free trial: in some cases it could forbid you from publishing results from the product, although in any case you should still at least mention that the product exists. Sep 19, 2015 at 19:30
  • @MarcGlisse , oh yeah, I almost forget about that, thank you for mentioning this issue, I gonna check the license before publishing any result. Sep 19, 2015 at 20:13
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    Are there really no publications on the commercial product? There's nothing stopping you citing an instruction manual, or product brochure.
    – Simon B
    Sep 19, 2015 at 22:15
  • @SimonB , yeah, even one of them work completely online, I don't install any program on PC, I just install add-on on the browser and it do the rest, but their instruction manual is a YouTube videos, can I still cite it, can't I ? Sep 20, 2015 at 9:38
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    I'm sure you could cite a YouTube video. But I would prefer to cite the company's web site, or even better, some specific brochure on that web site.
    – Simon B
    Sep 20, 2015 at 19:04

3 Answers 3


You can totally reference non-free software in your work. The licence under which it is released has no impact on the technical and scientific merit of its algorithms and features. The only issue is that it is harder to know exactly what the system does if the code is not open, and that it will be harder (and probably more expensive) to reproduce any research based on it.

There are a lot of papers out there (often coming from private-sector reserachers rather than from academics, but still) which are exclusively focused on industrial products under proprietary licence. What is important is what is said about them, to which extent they are analysed, whether they are properly compared to other existing systems... Of course, it is easier to do that if you have inside knowledge of the product (i.e. you have participated to its design for instance), but it will remain difficult (not impossible) for the community to validate or refute your claims.

In a state of the art, if you know that a non-free system has a relevant feature, or solves a related problem, or contribute to the field, you just cannot ignore it, it would be a deep mistake, scientifically speaking (*). However, it might be useful to take precautions about the verifiability of the system's claim.

For what it's worth, the software development attached to my PhD thesis relied on a proprietary framework. It's not ideal in my opinion, but it doesn't invalidate the corresponding research, as long as the choice is duly motivated (for instance, no other framework provides feature X).

(*) "Listen to me: someone who doesn’t know the truth is just thick-headed. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a crook." (Berthold Brecht, Life of Galileo, scene 9 - you want to be a researcher? This play is a must read).

  • Well, my research doesn't depend on these products, but produce the same result as their demo did. So I suppose, I will reference them in my practical study, but not in the theoretical study. Is that OK? Sep 19, 2015 at 9:42
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    I understand you have two separated "state of the art" or "related works" sections, one theoretical and one practical. I guess that if you don't have any theoretical info on those tools, and if their authors haven't formulated any theoretical claims (in the sense of your classification), then there is no point in mentioning them in your theoretical related works and yes, they could be cited only in the practical section. It is just an uninformed opinion though, and you should check your strategy with your advisor.
    – Eusebius
    Sep 19, 2015 at 9:52
  • Yes, I have two separated state of the art, theoretical and practical, theoretical section focus on published and non-technical work, while practical section focus on implementation and technical work. Sep 19, 2015 at 11:03

I think you absolutely should mention the found products in your thesis or papers. If you can compare them with your work this is even better!

To show that you know about these products is usually appreciated and gives you a higher competence. When you do not mention them it might be interpreted that you either a) don't know the market and state of the art or b) you try to make yourself appear smarter than you are by hiding/lie about competitors. It is likely that there are people in the reviewers or audience that know the other products so that this issue comes up sooner or later. It is always better to include discussion of your competitors (esp. in computer science), even if you were at the end of long work and find out last minute that there is something available very similar to your work. To lie or conceal the competitors does not improve your work and if this becomes known it will give you a very bad reputation (for good reason).

So write about what you found. I also don't see any problems for scientific publication.

  • That was helpful, you encouraged me to do the right thing, thank you Sep 19, 2015 at 12:45

I am not familiar with your area but I do not see a problem here. Basically about every book you reference is not for free anyway. Much of the laboratory tools used in natural science are neither for free.

If it is necessary that your experiments be reproduced then the facility will provide the means to the researchers to do so. Science has never been "for free" and research can cost quite a lot of money.

  • I got your point, Well, I should have said these non-free products are also closed-source, So I should deal with them as a black-box (I mean, I don't know the way they reach their result), while in published papers and books they describe their works and explain how they reach their result. So can I reference closed-method (non-free products) or just reference opened-method (papers and books) ? Sep 19, 2015 at 9:10
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    I see the problem but unfortunately cannot give you an answer to this as in my field it would not matter (the result is independent from the computation methods). However, I do not see it as a problem as it is theoretically possible to disassemble the programme. Is it from a reliable source (e.g. a well-renowned university)? Sep 22, 2015 at 13:57
  • Yes it's form well known company in this field, so I will cite their work in my study. Sep 29, 2015 at 3:28
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    I think as long as the others can find out how you did it (e.g. by also buying the programme and reproduce your results) there should be no problem. It gets, however, tricky, when your results are not replicable since then you could tell anything and defend your result (even if it were made up) by simply blaming the others' methods. Sep 30, 2015 at 20:35

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