A paper I wrote was recently accepted for publication. In one of our figures, we report our results juxtaposed against results from another paper published in a different journal. To perform a quantitative comparison, we did the following:
- Download the PDF of the other paper. The relevant figure is in the style of a "density plot" with an associated color bar. By this I mean that three-dimensional data (x,y,z) is plotted in two dimensions with the z value represented by a color in a color bar with associated numerical values.
- We reconstruct a data set in the form (x,y,z) by associating the (x,y) coordinates relative to the given axis tick marks, and by associating the colors at each (x,y) to the associated color in the color bar. Details of the method by which we did this is explained in the supplementary material of our paper.
- We re-plot the resulting data set with our own plotting software to compare it to ours using the same color scheme (a different color scheme from the original).
Importantly, we did not duplicate the figure of the original paper, but converted it into a data set and re-plotted that data. The raw data set was not included as a supplemental to the original publication. (one could argue that we should have simply requested the raw data from the authors of the other paper, but that's a different question)
We just received our proofs from the copy editors, who included the following remark:
Please note that in order to reproduce figures from another journal, authors must show that they have complied with the requirements of the publisher of the other journal, possibly including written agreement of both publisher and author of the originally published work. If a figure is reprinted from another source, copyright information must be included in the caption. Please provide required information.
While we don't wish to dispute the copy editors and will probably simply go through with getting permission from the other journal (which will likely require us to pay around $50 USD), I want to know what the rules/laws regarding what we did are in this case. A few thoughts:
- It seems to me that we did not "reproduce the figure", i.e. we did not show the same figure as it appears in that paper.
- If the data set had been included as a supplementary to the paper, then presumably a citation would entirely suffice to use that data and re-plot it (perhaps this would depend whether the paper was paywalled or not?)
- Assuming the above is true, then extracting data from a figure, which ostensibly is just a compact and intuitive way to represent precisely the underlying data set (i.e. in principle the figure contains the same data as the underlying numerical values), then there should be no difference between what we did (extracting the data from the figure) and simply plotting data obtained as a supplemental to a published paper.
In any case this seems like a rather unfortunate situation for scientific publishing and making scientific results accessible.