A former colleague (not collaborator) used main results of two of my published papers in a science documentary featuring their work. They had briefly mention to me at some point, that they wanted to use my work, including images from the paper to help explain their work. Of course, I said it would be fine, as long as they would contact the senior author of the work (images are copyrighted) and cited the authors/project name. This researcher never contacted the senior author and in the documentary there is no credit to any of the studies, not during the doc nor in the final credits. Also, the person never even mentions it is not their own work, so it makes it seem they did the work themselves. I would already be happy with something along the lines of "previous research has shown". But not one word indicates the work is not theirs.

I want to take action about this, but not sure what to do. I am no longer in the University where I published both papers, nor in the University where we were both colleagues. I emailed the senior author already and I am awaiting reply. But I want to take further action as the documentary just aired a couple of days ago.

  • Would it be advisable to contact the makers of the documentary (it's a big US TV network)?
  • Should I contact the University where this researcher is now working at? (The University name appears in the documentary as the person's affiliation)
  • Should I approach them directly by email? What should I say?
  • What would be the appropriate steps to take?

I want to take action, but don't want to get myself in legal issues either... so any advice is appreciated!

Update: One of my former advisors (not involved in any of the studies) strongly encouraged me to let it slide arguing that published information can be used by anyone in documentaries aimed to the lay public. And that documentaries cannot cite everyone involved in the research, as this is not interesting to the public. I am surprised this is their position. Does anyone else thinks this is the correct way to think about it?

  • 10
    Consider any science documentary you have ever seen broadcast on TV. Not a YouTube video; an actual TV broadcast. How many citations (by name) to the original researcher(s) have you ever seen? Maybe they mention it if it's Galileo or Hawking.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 13:37
  • 3
    Did you carefully check the credits for proper attribution? Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 16:20
  • 1
    When you say the images are copyrighted, are they copyrighted by the author? Or are they copyrighted by a third party and you merely obtained permission to use them in your work? If the latter, then there may be another aggrieved party here as well.
    – bta
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 19:01
  • 14
    It's worth noting that this researcher may have credited you properly during the 10 hours of footage the documentary team recorded, but the director decided that was not interesting enough for the general public to make it into the 5-10 minutes that was actually aired.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 19:09
  • 2
    What did you enter the field for in the first place? Do I need to cite Pythagorean every time I use his theorem?
    – user428517
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 22:26

3 Answers 3


I agree with your former advisor: let it slide...published information can be used by anyone in documentaries...[they] cannot cite everyone, perhaps even anyone, as this is not interesting, moreover, it's distracting. This applies not only to documentaries, but most manuscripts outside of academic publishing, e.g., textbooks, company reports, magazine articles, ... (That said, authors should ideally be able to produce sources.) Bask in the glory of having your work included, mention the media coverage on your CV, on your web page, in future research papers, etc.

  • 39
    Furthermore, it may well be that the attribution was cut by the documentary folks in post-processing without your colleague knowing it.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 13:36
  • 5
    I agree you can't expect a citation during the presentation, but surely it should be in the credits and they should've asked permission from the senior author as instructed?
    – Kat
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 16:21
  • 1
    @Kat I think it depends: If a presentation focuses on one author's work, then that author should surely appear, so credit is given. Focusing on one author's work is surely less common though, which means many works will be considered, at which point the presentation will likely be focusing on the domain, rather than a particular author.
    – user2768
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 9:51
  • @Kat I won't comment on the issue of crediting the source, but I strongly believe that permission is not required and people should be able to use public research results even if (for example) the senior author explicitly refuses to give permission and "prohibits" the use, noone should have (and, as far as I know, doesn't have) the ability to prohibit the use of published research. Copyright applies to the specific expression, and academic credit of origin is a thing, but the main results of your papers are available for everyone to build upon as they wish even if you would not approve.
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 11:53
  • @Peteris it sounds like they used copyrighted images, not just the general results of the research, though.
    – Kat
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 17:05

You can contact the TV network and the University.

Point out the issue, without mentioning that you suspect intention or anything. As for your colleague, they promised something and didn't keep it, so they are not really reliable.

Without claiming that they left out your name intentionally (it quite easily may have been an oversight), the loss in terms of visibility is now so large that you want the information corrected, at least for future reference.


I disagree with the other answers. This is journalistically poor. There is a reason why there are credits at the end of documentaries, and acknowledgement is part of this.

That said, the wrong is not the lack of citation to your work, it's the use of copyrighted images. It's your publisher who has really been wronged.

If you choose to pursue it, use whatever mechanisms your publisher requires to report improper use, and leave it at that. It's the publishers decision whether they pursue this.

  • 1
    They asked to use copyrightright images, it is unclear whether they used them
    – user2768
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 15:42
  • 1
    They can't ask you to use copyrighted images unless you hold the copyright. Are you sure the proper attributions aren't in the credits somewhere? It doesn't seem like you've seen the documentary. Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 16:19
  • Are you asking me? Or the OP? I'm only referring to the OP's words.
    – user2768
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 9:54
  • The images appear in the documentary. There are no credits anywhere, neither to the images, to the source of the images, or to any of the authors.
    – anonymous
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 10:15
  • @anonymous Did they appear legally?
    – user2768
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 14:37

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