A former colleague has created a figure. The figure is not published and serves only as a mean for information sharing. I used to be a part of that research group and thus had access to it.

I published an article featuring a modified version of this figure, to explain my current experimental set-up. I did not cite the author of the figure as the figure was not found in any published material. I didn't know what to do - perhaps add them in Acknowledgments?

Have I done the wrong thing?

  • Is this figure something "special"? – user115896 Nov 26 '19 at 22:57
  • No. It's just a very high-level description of an experimental set-up that the entire group uses. – User293727 Nov 27 '19 at 8:19
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    You could ask them. It could be that they don't care. – user115896 Nov 27 '19 at 11:25
  • They do care. They are accusing me of plagiarism. – User293727 Nov 27 '19 at 11:28
  • Then you should add this to the question. – user115896 Nov 27 '19 at 11:55

The correct thing to do is to cite them for the figure by name, if they will permit it. List the citation as "private communication". You should also probably indicate the it is "adapted from a private communication..."

You have committed plagiarism if you give the impression that you are the source. But it is easy to avoid with a citation.

You can probably handle it in acknowledgements if you are clear about what you are acknowledging. Use language similar to the above.

  • Okay. Thanks. I didn't know about this and it was revealed to me several months after publishing the paper. Do I need to contact the publisher now? What do you advise? – User293727 Nov 26 '19 at 21:03
  • It is hard to backtrack and I don't have advice. You could try that. But you could also, at least, apologize to your colleague. I doubt that it would be noticed by anyone unless your colleague objects to what you did. But use better practices in future. – Buffy Nov 26 '19 at 21:07
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    They did object, accusing me of plagiarising the figure. I will happily apologise as I wasn't aware of what better to do in this situation. But I would of course like to amend the situation, too. – User293727 Nov 26 '19 at 21:08
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    Since they objected, it would be best to contact the editor to see what sort of clean-up can be done. – Buffy Nov 27 '19 at 1:14
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    OK. I've done that. Let's see what happens. Thank you. – User293727 Nov 27 '19 at 8:19

Citing such "private communications" is often frowned upon, because others can only take your word for it, and have no chance to check the context.

Like with any illustration that you copied or closely adapted from somewhere else, you put a copyright notice (after asking for the consent of the copyright holder, that is) in a footnote.

The facts represented in such a figure deserve an additional citation, if they were previously published. If not, no problem, but you are automatically taking over the scientific responsibility for their correctness.

  • But it was already published. So, contact the editor to add a copyright notice? – User293727 Nov 27 '19 at 8:19
  • You cannot modify an already published work. Not to correct a misspelt name, not to add a citation, not just add a copyright notice. – Karl Nov 27 '19 at 21:28

I didn't find an information in your text - do your ex-colleagues give you any options they will be satisfied with? Actually, are there some really specific details of the experimental setup, which they patented or invented that are drawn in figure? The question behind that I have - do they claim that this is the case of plagiarism because you published their "intellectual property" or just because you took away the figure that they designed/drawed, although it contains a rather common for your field of research information?

In both cases, I would find the way to solve the problem ASAP during the private meeting to avoid any misunderstanding. In the first case, you need to be careful and, basically, follow their wishes not to escalate the situation you are into.

Good luck with it! Maybe you could update us about the solution.

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