Research software citation for researchers

Version 1.0.0 – 16 February 2018

Contributors: Stephan Druskat

As a researcher, you may be unsure about the right way to cite a software that you have used for your research which you are preparing for publication.1

As a matter of fact, the citation of software in scientific publications is hard, as it is far less standardized than that of, say, journal articles.

You may ask yourself what exactly you should give as a reference in this context. Is mentioning the software name enough? Should you add the URL to the software website, if it exists? Or to the source code repository, if you know where to find it? Is it sufficient to cite a manual? And what about the exact version of the software you have actually used?

Also, you will most likely be faced with the task of finding the location of the necessary metadata to create your reference in a specific format.

The following two sections will hopefully help you with both issues.

How to cite software “correctly”

There is in fact a community-developed set of best practices for citing software in your research. It has been defined in a paper:

Smith, Arfon M., Katz, Daniel S., Niemeyer, Kyle E., & FORCE11 Software Citation Working Group. (2016). Software citation principles. PeerJ Computer Science, 2, e86. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj-cs.86.

You can always refer to that paper and extract the specific suggestions for your use case, but to provide a shortcut, the following is a digest of the principles2 that should guide you in citing a software in your research publication.

Software should be cited on the same basis as any other research product

  • Add a reference to the software to your list of references, and cite it in the text as you would cite other work, such as a book or journal paper.

Cite the software itself

This may sound obvious, but is important to stress.

  • Cite the software itself under all circumstances.
  • If there is a paper or other publication about the software that is important to your work, cite that as well, but also cite the software product.
  • If the authors of a software request that you cite a software paper, cite it, but also cite the software product.

Cite the exact version of the software

  • If you have a version identifier (e.g., a version number) for the software you have used, cite that and include the version number in the reference.
  • If you don’t have a version identifier, cite the software project as such.

Cite the software using its unique identifier

Software, just like any other research product, can be given a unique identifier, such as a DOI.

  • If you have a unique identifier for a software, include it in the reference if you would do so for other research products as well (paper, books, etc.).
  • If a software does not have a DOI or other unique identifier, include its version identifier (e.g., a version number) and the URL of its origin (i.e., the source code repository; or – less ideal – its artifact repository, or download page) in the reference.
  • If you don’t have a version identifier for the software, you could provide a commit hash or revision number and the repository URL.

Cite the source code

  • When software is accessible as both source code and another type – an executable, a container, a virtual machine – cite the source code.

Cite the authors of the software

Research products have authors, and software is no different. In order to enable fair distribution of credit and acknowledgement, make sure that your reference includes the authors of the software, just like for any other research product you are citing.

  • Include the authors of the software in your reference.

Cite the release date of the software

A software’s release date is the equivalence to a book’s or journal’s publication date, so it should be included in the citation.

  • Include the release date of the software in your reference.

Where to find the respective metadata

Metadata for software citation may be hard to find, but if the authors followed best practices you should be able to find them in one of the following places.

CITATION file

  • Look for a file called CITATION.cff in the root folder of the source code repository, or in the installation folder of the software itself. The Citation File Format is easy to read, so you should be able to extract the necessary metadata without problems. Additionally, it is modeled based on the Software citation principles (Smith et al., 2016) and requires the minimally necessary set of metadata by design.
  • If there is no such file, look for a file called CITATION with any other file extension in the root folder of the source code repository, or in the installation folder of the software itself. These files will often contain a plain-text description of how the software authors request the software to be cited, sometimes with a BibTeX snippet included.

Metadata file

  • Look for a file called codemeta.json in the root folder of the source code repository, or in the installation folder of the software itself. It will contain general metadata for the software, and you should be able to extract the useful data for citation.

Other sources

  • Open the About dialog in the software itself, if it has a graphical user interface. It can usually be found in the main menu under Help, or in a Help section.
  • Look at the arguments for the software if it has a command line client. It may have an argument dedicated to citation (e.g., software --cite) or a dedicated section in its help output (e.g., software --help).

References

  1. Smith, Arfon M., Katz, Daniel S., Niemeyer, Kyle E., & FORCE11 Software Citation Working Group. (2016). Software citation principles. PeerJ Computer Science, 2, e86. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj-cs.86.

  1. If you wonder more generally whether you should cite a specific software, please refer to shouldacite, which will provide you with the right answer! ↩︎

  2. The following sections include exact quotes of the paper, which are, however, not marked as such, for reasons of readability. Please refer to the paper itself should you want to cite content from section How to cite software “correctly” to make sure that you are citing correctly. ↩︎


Copyright © 2018ff. Stephan Druskat and contributors. All content licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

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