My ex student developed a useful program while working with me and some other students/postdocs in my group.

Nowadays the student is a postdoc at a European university. She has a copy of the code and applies it sporadically. Recently she informed me that her current supervisor requested her to share this code with him, in quite a rude way, because she used the code to compute something for her ongoing job at her university.

There is no reason to share the code and I, as a coauthor, rejected that. What should be her correct answer to her current supervisor?

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    Her correct response to you should be "show me the paperwork that I signed saying I wouldn't share the code with anyone, else buzz off."
    – Mad Jack
    Feb 5, 2016 at 18:54
  • @MadJack I think the key is "in ... a rude way" - what is rude about the request? Who does the code legally belong to? Is he entitled to see it, or are there reasons why she shouldn't use/divulge/share it? What is the current license of the code (if at all)? Are you using the code for current research that competes with the new group? Are you happy for her to use, but not share it? Do you have the right to stop her using it? These questions are all relevant here. Feb 5, 2016 at 19:08
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    There are plenty of reasons to share the code. One is, for example, that it is obviously useful and therefore other people don't have to spend the time reinventing the wheel for no reason. You might have some valid reasons for not sharing the code, but please don't say there is no reason for it. There are plenty of reasons. Sharing is caring Feb 5, 2016 at 19:23
  • @MadJack: the answer to that question may be the employment contract the postdoc had with the OP (or rather the OP's university) :-/. Implying that possibly even the OP isn't legally able to allow sharing of the code (nor her taking the code with her). OTOH, it is also possible that the ex student together with the other students of the group are the owners (this is e.g. typically the case for master students in Germany - there's no automatic transfer of the work to university here). Feb 6, 2016 at 12:36

4 Answers 4


1) In retrospect it would obviously have been useful to establish general rules about using the code in advance. Is the code public? Is it available for use by any of the original co-authors without having to include the other authors on future publications? Can it be shared with or without consent from the original co-authors? Any of these rules are fine, they just have to be agreed on in advance.

2) Now that the code was used in a new project I strongly sympathize with the request of your students supervisor. I would be very uncomfortable publishing a paper based on a code that I have no access to. It means that I cannot verify the results in my own paper!

3) In sharing the code with colleagues it is perfectly o.k to restrict future use. You can say ``I'm sharing this code for the purpose of verifying the work on your current project, but if you wish to use it in the future you have to ask permission/include an acknowledgement/add me as co-author/etc. (whatever you and your authors feel is appropriate)".

4) Personally, I am strong believer in open software. If you publish a paper based on a code, the code should be made public. However, this is not a commonly accepted standard, and restricted and proprietary codes are common in many areas of science.

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    +1 for pointing out that software licensing and the appropriate rights transfer should be decided early on. Licensing later on can be a legal nightmare, because you can have large numbers of people who are (partial) owners, but who all need to agree to licensing contracts. All this is depending on IP legislation which varies across the world... Feb 6, 2016 at 12:42
  • IMHO asking for co-authorship in the licensing conditions is unethical wrt. the usual authorship rules. You can ask for citation of the software and/or the respective papers, though. Feb 6, 2016 at 12:42

The correct answer, at least in my mind, is: Sure, share the code

You say "There is no reason to share the code", but your student wants to use the code and maybe her new advisor wants to use it. Both of those things would help your former student out and are reasons to share the code.

What you need to do is figure out a valid reason for not sharing the code. Once you know that reason, it will be clear how to respond. Even if you are hoping to someday sell/license the code, you can protect your interests with an NDA and a restrictive license.

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    The code implements a new method and no one in the world have an alternative yet. Neither my ex student nor me are interested in giving the code to that particular person because that particular person declined our collaboration attempts (within the other activities). The code is essential for producing a range of publications that we currently prepare (with my ex student). I am ok with her new group getting some results but not ok with that groups having an entire code.
    – andre
    Feb 5, 2016 at 20:29
  • Sorry to -1, but: while "share the code" may be the desirable answer (it most probably would for me), the OP may not be the one who can legally grant licenses - depending on the legal status the student had with the OP's institution. Feb 6, 2016 at 12:36

I'm sorry. My coauthors would prefer that I not to share this code.

If she/you don't want it to be shared, she should also stop using it at her new job. A advisee shouldn't be running anything as part of their research that they aren't able to share with their supervisor.

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    I think that is too strong. I have advises who have access to personally identifiable information (PII) and our/their ethics protocols do not allow them to share the PII with me.
    – StrongBad
    Feb 5, 2016 at 18:38
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    @StrongBad That's a good point. But I'm not sure if running some program/code that you have to keep secret from your adviser is a good idea. Although personally I'm all for sharing code whenever possible.
    – Ric
    Feb 5, 2016 at 18:40

What say you have in this would strongly depend on the policy on intellectual property of what is being developed. E.g. here in Chile, whatever a student develops as part of their pursuit of their undergraduate degree is the intellectual property of the school (not the lecturer or advisor). It is legally handled like "work for hire" for the school. Most external sources of funding, which fund graduate students, either ask for the results being shared freely (essentially placing them into the public domain) or ask for the rights.

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    On contrast, here in Germany, there is no automatic transfer of IP to the university for students. However, there is an automatic transfer of the copy rights to employers (which may be the university). Feb 6, 2016 at 12:39

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