In my dissertation, I have felt the need to illustrate some ideas with the help of figures and illustrations which I have found available in existing literature. I have borrowed a number of them and I give proper citations and everything. My question is:

Will it be considered a negative point to have multiple borrowed figures from existing publications?

Also, in two cases, I found it hard to rephrase the captions for the images and I just quoted the captions(the proper way). Does that look like I am being lazy?


The issue here is not "laziness"; the real issue with reusing figures from the literature is that, without appropriate permissions, you do not have the right to do so.

If you reuse a figure in the literature without the appropriate permission from the rights-holders, you are effectively stealing their work, which is not allowed. Therefore, you need to make sure that you have gotten the right to use the figures, and have the proof to back it up if challenged. Normally, for scholarly works such as theses, such rights are routinely granted and cost-free. However, you need to check with the publisher (or author of the paper, if she holds publication rights) before using the figure. Then, next to the figure you are reproducing, you'll need to have a statement such as "Figure reprinted by permission of X," where X is the person or institution authorized to grant reproduction rights.

  • But those stuff are in the "open" literature. Aren't they? Does that not mean that they are sharing the contents of their work? Like I said, I do acknowledge that the works are not mine and I give the credit.
    – Shb
    Aug 25 '13 at 14:41
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    Publishing a work is not the same thing as giving people unfettered access to do whatever they like with it. If I cite a figure used in a previous work that I wrote, I still have to include a reprint statement acknowledging the original publication. As for who holds the rights, that depends on where it's found. Rights for material in published journals can always be obtained through the publisher; rights for material in places like arXiv are usually through the authors themselves.
    – aeismail
    Aug 25 '13 at 14:43
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    @aeismail: At least in the US, copyright law contains exceptions for "fair use": quoting short passages, making copies for academic use, etc. It could be argued that reproducing a figure would qualify, in which case you actually do have the legal right to use it. But I am not a lawyer. Aug 25 '13 at 17:01
  • Yes, I'm aware of fair use restrictions—that's where "appropriate permissions" come into play. If the publisher allows it, just follow their instructions. (I'm sure you could get away with it in a thesis, perhaps, but I think you'd be unlikely to get away with that in a journal article, fair use or no.)
    – aeismail
    Aug 25 '13 at 17:19

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