I am currently writing a document that needs pictures for visual representations of my topic. I’ve been browsing around on the Internet to find such picture. I found a very good picture that could be suitable for my topic. Unfortunately, I do not know how to cite this picture.

The reason why I say I do not know how to cite this picture is because it is a picture from a textbook (or article) that someone decided to upload on Pinterest. I know this because the picture has a small caption at the bottom that says, Figure 1.2: Blah blah blah.

Is it possible to cite something like this? Should I move on and try to find a substitute? My document will be published in the United States.

  • 1
    Can you contact whoever uploaded the picture? (If that's an ignorant question, I apologize; I have never used Pinterest.)
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:16
  • I've never used Pinterest either. It was just a result I found on Google and then I visited the page and it was a posting on Pinterest. I assume you can ask the person provided that they left their contact information behind. I also edited my question with a tag and it's part of my question about a country of publication.
    – user60205
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:17
  • 2
    You should try to search by image in Google to see if you find the same picture in another site: images.google.com
    – The Doctor
    Dec 18, 2017 at 23:23
  • Pinterest is a scourge of all image searches, but I believe images cannot be (or are rarely) uploaded directly. Rather, a pinterest entry 'pins' a specific website; but unfortunately, the link to the source is only accessible if you have a pinterest account. I recommend that you create an account and check if there is a source link to where the image came from (if you are lucky, it was from a blog entry and the contents make note of the textbook it was taken from...)
    – nengel
    Dec 19, 2017 at 3:44
  • @TheDoctor I was able to find a tool online that has an algorithm that is capable of reverse searching where you upload a picture and it searches for multiple instances of where this picture has occurred. Haven't found any website that gives credit, unfortunately...
    – user60205
    Dec 19, 2017 at 22:07

2 Answers 2


Plagiarism is about inaccurately claiming a work as your own. Thus, as long as you make it clear that it's not yours and attribute the source as best you can, you need not fear an accusation of plagiarism.

Whether this is an appropriate source to cite, on the other hand, depends on how you are planning to use it and in what degree of formality. Since this is unclear from your post, I will suggest a few possibilities along a spectrum:

  • If you are not formally publishing the image and are not dependent on its content, there is likely to be no problem and you can credit very informally. For example, I recently made a presentation that included an humorous image marked: "[Photo Credit: The Internet]". Even copyright is unlikely to be an issue as long as you do best-effort attribution and aren't annoying a large corporation or unusually litigious artist.

  • If you are formally publishing the image, then the publication venue will need to have copyright issues resolved. For this, you either need to track down the author or else give up on using the image. Here, you can use the standard forms for citing a website. That is likely to not be very helpful for anyone trying to trace the image, given how unstable and dynamic Pinterest is, but will at least follow the appropriate forms.

  • If you are actually relying on the technical content of the image, you probably need to find another source or generate the content yourself. Since you know nothing about the actual ultimate source, there is no scientific credibility to an anonymous snippet on the internet, and it needs to be treated accordingly: for all you know it could be from a UFOlogy pamphlet or a Chick tract.

  • Thank you for your feedback. Maybe I should mention that this picture is not original research meaning that this picture is just reinforcement to a well known idea, a summary to be specific. It almost looks extremely identical to a summary table but the picture is not labeled as a summary table which lead me to believe that it was a figure and only a figure.
    – user60205
    Dec 18, 2017 at 22:34
  • According to your answer, I can take the Bible, publish it under my name, cite it as "text is not mine, got the text from another book, original author(s) not clearly identified/long time ago deceased" and get away with it. Plagiarism is more or less an ethical problem (as there are no laws about it) while intellectual properly is well defined. What he is doing by taking an internet picture/table/text and turning it in a printed, probably commercial, product, is clearly against the intellectual property law.
    – user83564
    Dec 18, 2017 at 23:01
  • @RazvanP I don't intend on commercializing anything. If I had the intentions on stealing it, I wouldn't have asked this question. I would like to give credit as much as I can. It's not an "internet picture" because I understand the medium of where this picture was from but I just don't understand how to give credit to something that was not credited in the first place when the picture was uploaded.
    – user60205
    Dec 19, 2017 at 2:31
  • @RazvanP "Publish it under my own name" is not equivalent to "cite it"
    – jakebeal
    Dec 19, 2017 at 20:08

My understanding is that, despite the best effort (such as googling the "blah blah" text accompanying the picture) you cannot identify the bibliographical coordinates of the content.

As of ownership, you use something that does not belong to you, you don't know whom it belongs, and "abandoned property" principle clearly does not apply.

What is the purpose of the document you write? If it is about gaining a million dollar, getting the Nobel prize, or all of the above, the original author of the picture will likely sue you. If not, your transgression, no matter if you cite or not the original author, will remain unpunished.

If you believe you are falling under "fair use", for example you criticize or approve the concept, and you need the picture to substantiate your claim, you can provide the URL and the date of retrieval, with "unknown original source and author" mention on the citation.


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