Openly licensing your research software


What is research software and why should it be open?

Research software, whether it be a few lines of code or a full library, is a key element of the research process and making sure it is openly available allows others to correctly analyse your data, and allows your work to be reproduced more easily and built on by others. It also allows others to cite your software so you can get credit for it as well as potentially opening opportunities for collaborations with others.  The University's statement on Open Research sets out TUoS’s commitments and expectations of all researchers in support of open research.

Open Licences

Posting software online without a reuse licence will make your software “all rights reserved” by default, and therefore greatly limits how others can use it. As such, adding a licence that clearly states how people can use your software increases the likelihood of it being reused as well as clarifying how they can do so.

There are many licences available that you can choose to apply to your software. Two of the most common are MIT and GPL. Creative Commons licences are often used to make journal articles open but they are not appropriate for software. 

MIT is a permissive licence with very few restrictions on how others can use your software, including being able to use it within proprietary software.

GPL is a more restrictive licence which requires people who modify your software to make it available under the same licence or one that is compatible with the GPL licence. This kind of licence is referred to as ‘copyleft’.

The University of Sheffield doesn’t mandate any specific licence, but strongly recommends using a common one to make reuse by others easier.

For help in choosing which licence is most appropriate for your software we recommend

Important considerations

If your software has third party dependencies you need to ensure that whatever licence you choose for your software is compatible with the licence(s) of the software (scripts, libraries, packages, etc.) you are using. Complying with the terms of other people’s licences is not just good research practice but is also a legal requirement.

If you are interested in commercialising your software it is important you speak to the Commercialisation Team prior to applying any licence to your software. Whilst applying an open licence is not necessarily incompatible with commercialisation, it is important to ensure that you are clear on the implications of openly licensing software before doing so. If commercialising software it is imperative that you track and record any use of other people’s code within your product.

If your research is supported by any external funding it is important to check the terms of your grant to ensure what you may or may not share openly and comply with those terms.

How to apply a licence

It is very simple to apply a licence to your software and takes only five minutes.

  1. At the top/root level of your folder structure (where your README file is located), create a file named LICENCE.
  2. Copy and paste the wording of the licence you have chosen into this file (templates are available on the MIT and GPL links above).
  3. Change any details as required (e.g. [year] or <author>).

It is also possible to apply a licence directly in GitHub by following these instructions.

Improving the usability and discoverability of your software

  • Add a line at the top of your README that states the licence you have placed on your software
  • Ensure your README is up to date and contains all the information that is required for someone to understand your software (e.g. description, installation guide, usage examples, if support is available, project status)
  • Deposit your software in a repository, such as Zenodo or ORDA, as this will give it a citable DOI. Whilst most open software licences don’t require attribution, by getting a doi you make it easier for others to to acknowledge your software.

For more information please contact us.

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