The use, re-use, and abuse of figures in academic publishing: Is a picture really worth ten thousand words?

Re-using images from published papers, even your own, can be problematic and is usually not possible without permission (re-use without citation and/or permission is a form of plagiarism). Luckily, re-use permission is easy to get and will be free of charge unless you are working on a commercial project such as a textbook or a book for the public.

Consider this: You spend a great deal of time putting together a research article, collating all the figures and tables of data, send it off for peer review, and eventually see it come out in a respected international journal. Great! A successful addition to your publication record and a step forward in your career.

You then start to write another paper. Here’s a key question: Can you re-use some of the same figures from your earlier work? The answer here is ‘probably not’: Not without attribution, citation, and, almost certainly, permission from the journal publisher who put out your earlier article.

Herein lies one of the trickiest aspects and least understood facets of academic publishing: Usually, because of the kind of copyright agreement you sign with a publisher, either when first submitting or receiving final acceptance of an academic paper, THEY, not YOU, end up controlling any images you include in the paper. This applies to all figures and images, even if you created them or took the photographs yourself. Confused? Angry? I know these feelings.

Issues to do with image copyright were first pointed out to me by my former PhD supervisor, who has written a huge number of scientific articles over the course of his career. He’s also written a fair number of textbooks and volumes for the public, and it’s here that he encountered a common issue: You are almost always not allowed to re-use images and figures you’ve published before in your own papers in subsequent works, especially those ‘for profit’ such as books. How would you feel about having to pay a fee to a publishing company to re-use a figure that you created in a book you’re currently working on?

The basic (sad) fact here is that it’s the publisher, NOT YOU, that usually owns the copyright once your work appears in a journal. The easiest way around this in academic not-for-profit publishing is to include text in the caption of your figures with words to the effect ‘This figure reproduced with permission from xxx, 2019’ (or similar; publishing companies might suggest suitable wording). Journals and publishers will have online forms or email addresses you can use to go through this process. Don’t try the trick that my old supervisor used to use: Scan and invert a figure in drawing software and then feel you can re-use it without permission! You might get away with it, or you might not. Remember that figures, just like words, can be plagiarised from the work of others, or self-plagiarised from your own work.

So, if you have to ask permission to re-use your own figures in subsequent papers, you most certainly will need to ask permission to reproduce other people’s images. How is this done? Does it cost money?

The answers to these questions are ‘make a request, as outlined above’ and ‘it depends on the kind of publication you are working on’. Requests to re-use figures from the academic papers of others can be made through journals’ online forms or via email addresses in the same way as you’d ask to re-use one of your own figures. This is usually a very fast and straightforward process as long as there’s no profit involved on your side (a ‘commercial’ project).

If, however, you are working on a book or publishing project that is likely to make money (such as a textbook, popular science book, or training e-book, for example), you’ll probably need to pay a fee for the use of an image in this ‘commercial’ project.

Is there not some clever way to avoid all of this? There is but it’s very rarely done: Publish the figures you intend to use in a subsequent academic article under a different license that allows reuse with proper attribution credit, before utilizing them in manuscripts published under a more restrictive license. This ensures free, uncomplicated, and unlimited reproduction of the material by anyone, including its original authors. Your figures are then essentially reused the first time you publish them in an academic article, accompanied by a proper reference to its source. Figures can be published in this way on your personal website, university repository, or other services (e.g. Figshare, the Open Science Framework), as long as the licensing model is declared in a matching document.

We are here to help: Our online courses, workshops (booked via institutions) and training materials are designed to help you design and publish effective figures. Get in touch with our team for more information.


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