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  1. Authors A, B and C published paper [1] in journal X.

  2. Author B created a figure for paper [1]. The figure is not essential and does not contain any important data. It is just a geometric ilustration.

  3. Authors C and B are writing a new paper [2] for journal Y.

Can the same figure be used in paper [2] without any mention to paper [1]? Is it ethical? Does it violate copyrights of X? Is it considered plagiarism by Y? How about the situation X=Y?

(Authors A, B and C are friends, so there is no problem for author A.)

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    What do you have to lose from citing [1] in [2]? – mg4w Jun 3 '18 at 18:14
  • @mg4w In fact, nothing. But, as [1] is not completely related do [2], maybe people will think it is a bad self-citation (maybe this would not be a problem if there was no common author). – Pedro Jun 4 '18 at 22:09
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Unfortunately there's no easy general answer to the copyright question, since it depends on the terms of the copyright assignment the authors signed with journal X, as well as the complexity and originality of the figure (you can't easily copyright an image of a triangle, you might have more difficultly with an image showing e.g. multiple stages of an algorithm). If the image was created programatically, then one possible solution might be to redraw it with slightly different data and new labelling.

It's also important to note that just citing the original source doesn't automatically make the copyright legal issues vanish. While the journal's home jurisdiction (or the authors') might grant you fair use rights/a fair trading defence, these each have their own restrictions, based on how much of the original the figure formed. Many academic publishers have a web portal allowing authors to request permissions to republish. These frequently (but not always) give reductions/waivers on fees to the original authors, or to articles submitted to their own journals.

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Can the same figure be used in paper [2] without any mention to paper [1]?

Yes. Relax, it is only an illustration.

Is it ethical?

Yes of course. Who would you harm by reproducing the figure? Why would you have to do a different figure to make the same point? If something is unethical here, it is wasting time on this issue.

Does it violate copyrights of X?

Never mind. Academic journals may sometimes be evil but they won't sue you for this.

Is it considered plagiarism by Y?

Possibly a harmless, tolerated form of plagiarism. About as serious as exceeding a speed limit by 1 kph.

How about the situation X=Y?

Might legally make some difference. But ethically and practically irrelevant.

  • Would you feel the same way if you created an illustration that was used without permission or citation in a best-selling book or in a movie? What if a politician you don't like used it in their campaign commercials? – James Jun 4 '18 at 13:34
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    @James: Personally, yes, I would feel the same, my most important (book length) work is in the public domain. But this is quite irrelevant: the question here is about an author reusing his own work. The issue is whether we should strictly obey rules when they are manifestly detrimental to science. I am paid to do research, not to study copyright laws or contracts, or to have email exchanges with publishers' administrative staff. In short, ethical is not the same as legal. – Sylvain Ribault Jun 4 '18 at 18:57

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