If you copy paste a diagram from a paper/book onto your own work, without permission or attribution, that's plagiarism.

What happens if you see a beautiful diagram about what you want to explain and you replicate it identically without copy pasting?

What if you don't copy it identically but it's still similar (say the colors are different, and the vertices/edges/boxes) have slightly different shapes? For example the original used a 3D blob to explain what a local chart is, and your diagram uses an ellipsoid.

What if you transfer mediums? For example a chalkboard diagram turned into a metafont diagram?

Since there are only so many ways to convey certain mathematical ideas, such as what a bivector is, or how to compute a spline. When do you know where your source of inspiration is too close to your own work that you walked over into plagiarism?

  • 30
    Do not mix plagiarism and copyright infringement as in your opening. – Alchimista Jan 13 at 8:30
  • 6
    @Alchimista I'm a little confused by your comment, this question doesn't seem to mention copyright at all. (And it hasn't been edited) – David Z Jan 13 at 19:07
  • 2
    @DavidZ The use of the word "permission" implies copyright. – Damian Yerrick Jan 13 at 22:24
  • 4
    @DamianYerrick No it doesn't. There are many situations that have nothing to do with copyright and yet involve some kind of grant of permission. I mean, sure, the word "permission" makes some people think of copyright, and there's nothing wrong with that; my point is just that the fact that the OP used the word "permission" is not sufficient to conclude that they meant to ask about copyright. – David Z Jan 13 at 22:47
  • 7
    @Mazura: I don't think "permission" has anything to do with plagiarism. If you say to someone "Feel free to claim my ideas and my work as your own", and they do so, they have committed plagiarism. – Oddthinking Jan 14 at 5:26

Paraphrasing Simon Peyton Jones here, credit is like love. Giving it to more people does not diminish it or you.

Even if you recreated an image yourself, there’s literally no reason to not attribute your inspiration for it (apart from your own ego).

The threshold for plagiarism is vague at times, but if you saw someone’s work, liked it and built upon it, give them credit.

  • 7
    Giving the credit is not the issue. It's a minimum courtesy. But if I did something similar with a code base, or with art, or with a paper, giving credit would not be enough, as just paraphrasing a paper would constitute gross academic misconduct. I am trying to determine how ok it is to reproduce diagrams. – Makogan Jan 13 at 1:05
  • 10
    It’s ok to reproduce diagrams, if you cite the source of inspiration. – Spark Jan 13 at 1:09
  • 7
    Maybe not. A diagram can sometimes be considered a complete work. Copying it can be copyright violation. Even though it is part of a larger work. You really need to get permission as well as cite it. Fair use doesn’t apply to complete works. – Buffy Jan 13 at 1:18
  • 37
    @Makogan "just paraphrasing a paper would constitute gross academic misconduct" - I'd argue that if it's correctly cited and attributed then it probably wouldn't be misconduct. It might not have much value as a peice of work, but because you've been honest about it it isn't misconduct. – DavidW Jan 13 at 9:13
  • 9
    @Makogan As an example: I might translate someone's worth to another language. I might well have to get copyright clearance to do so. However nobody is going to view a properly attributed translation as academic dishonesty or plagiarism and many people might find it useful. – DavidW Jan 13 at 16:02

I am not a lawyer. However, this is how it presents itself to me:

I think it is necessary to distinguish the "citation" from the "copyright" aspect:

Citation: A complete recreation of a diagram to convey a (semi-)formal idea is like the reproduction of a formula. I would not assume copyright violation applies here, but it definitely needs to be cited if there is any original contribution in the diagram (e.g. it is the first time that something is visualised in a particular way etc.) rather than a well-known and -used standard diagram.

In Greek mathematics, diagrams often took the role that formulas take today, and this is still often the case today: exact sequences, Feynman diagrams, Organic Chemistry etc. all fall into this category. In short, if your diagram falls into a category equivalent to any of these, recreate and cite.

Copyright: If the diagram itself is not original, but you are copying the style, possibly colour scheme etc., then recreating it may fall under copyright violation and you need permission from the copyright holder.

  • 3
    Scientific citations and copyright aren't the same by a long shot though... – Hobbamok Jan 13 at 10:04
  • 2
    This is an important idea to get across to the OP. Data, itself, can't be copyrighted, and so trivial representations of it probably can't either (though it is a civil law question). But if a diagram is "creative" then it can be considered a "complete work" independent of the larger work in which it sits. For example, a paper might be completely captured in a single diagram (extreme case), in which case copying the diagram cannot be "fair use". – Buffy Jan 13 at 10:54
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs: Much clearer, take a +1 – Jack Aidley Jan 13 at 17:19
  • This answer seems to focus on copyright, while the original question is about plagiarism - seems like a rather significant disconnect to me.... – David Z Jan 13 at 19:15
  • @DavidZ OP talks about medium transfer. I think others respond to the copyright issue more in detail, I emphasize the different aspects. – Captain Emacs Jan 13 at 20:46

Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own.

If this happens explicitly (i.e. you claim originality) then things are pretty clear cut.

The problem comes when you fail to clarify that a piece of work is not your own. Leaving the authorship of an idea ambiguous is where you get into trouble.

Thus, at a bare minimum, you need to give credit. Depending on what you're doing, this might be a formal citation, or a clear notice of the source. In a presentation, this might be an annotation on the slide or a clear verbal indication of where you got the idea.

Copyright takes things further. This moves from academic conduct into legal waters.

The specifics here depend on your country. Copying someone's work with appropriate citations may be covered by "fair use" clauses in your local copyright laws which permit copying work for the purposes of comment and criticism; as an educator, you have a good case that this is your purpose.

However, even then, you should be careful, especially if you're reaching a wide audience with your replication.

So, in summary:

  • avoid charges of plagiarism by using appropriate forms of citation
  • avoid charges of breaching copyright by understanding your local fair use exceptions.
  • As long as neither you nor anyone else is making money off of it, it's called fair use, +1. – Mazura Jan 14 at 0:40
  • 13
    @Mazura: Uh, that is not the definition of fair use. If I take a pre-released version of a film and share it on the web to allow others to watch it for free, that isn't fair use – Oddthinking Jan 14 at 5:30
  • 1
    "Fair use is the ability to use a work protected by copyright in certain circumstances, including for the purposes of comment, criticism, or teaching, without first obtaining permission from the rights holder. Determining whether a use is fair is a case-by-case inquiry and involves a hard look at the facts." - the definition of fair use is who has better lawyers. – Mazura Jan 14 at 15:05
  • 2
    @Mazura no it's not. There is a fairly precise legal definition of fair use. (What you quoted there is consistent with the definition, at least in the US, but your added commentary is not.) – David Z Jan 14 at 19:16

When I was writing a textbook, we had to be very careful about falling foul of copywrite issues with the figures we included. We had many figures that we cited as "adapted from..." or "inspired by....", and in those cases someone at the publisher looked carefully at how similar they were to the inspiration. In some cases our publisher decided they needed to seek permission from the copywrite holders and in some of those we had to pay a licensing fee, which was pretty large. I don't know to what extent our publisher was being defensive, and licensing things it didn't need to.


Plagiarism existed long before computers and copy-pasting did. Do not confuse the means of copying with the act of plagiarism itself. If you reuse something (significantly large or important) without attribution, it is plagiarism. It doesn't matter if the original was jpeg, chalk, or stone tablets.

Copy-pasting an exact copy of a text or image is the kind of plagiarism that is easy to detect and prove, but if I were to read a brilliant but forgotten math thesis, understand the core elements, and then write them up differently and present them as my own, I would be the worst kind of plagiarist.

  • yes but diagrams seem somewhat different. Like, there are only so many ways someone can draw a sphere or a cube. – Makogan Jan 15 at 21:59
  • If the value of the diagram is in its design (either aesthetics or clarity, whatever you meant by "beautiful"), then this is what merits attribution. – alexis Jan 18 at 11:01
  • if nothing of value is being used, then we might fall in the range of "not worth attributing"; again, regardless of how the content is copied, in the sense that the question could have been answered the same way before computers. – alexis Jan 18 at 11:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.