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Title says it all, but for specifics..

Just found out my thesis advisor published a paper last year using a figure from my thesis. The thesis is in embargo until later this year.

I do have be honest and say that the figure in question is a redraft (with some slight alteration) from an older study. However, it is clear my advisor used the exact file from my thesis work. To his credit, he added a different section on the overall figure, but the part of my redraft is identical and was not altered in any way.

I was not part of the writing process, so it makes sense I'm not an author. However, I thought I'd at least be mentioned in the acknowledgements? Which brings up the bigger question of, are acknowledgements held to the same "ethical regard"? Can you just blatantly use someone's work without giving any credit at all if they didn't do enough to warrant authorship?

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4 Answers 4

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There really aren't two ways around it: Yes, using someone else's figure is unethical.

The question of what to do about it is of course much harder to answer.

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  • The asker did not inquire about what to do, but I think it is clear that nothing should be done. May 22 at 0:44
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    Not only that, but even with an acknowledgment it would be unethical if the advisor did not ask for your consent to use your figure.
    – Dan Romik
    May 22 at 1:23
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Actually, I didn't want to imply that nothing should be done. It's a much more difficult question because that involves human interactions. May 22 at 16:25
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    He what ? This is way out of line. See the HoD right now, man.
    – Trunk
    May 23 at 8:14
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    Speak to the head of department or whoever has been assigned to represent you.
    – Tom
    May 23 at 18:04
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It’s a bit crass to do this and keep you out of the loop, but he did reorganize the figure so technically it is not “the figure from your thesis”, especially if it’s a redraft from and old study, i.e. not the final data used in “your figure”.

Even if the context is substantially different (i.e. different interpretation of the data), one would think that he would have let you know - especially if it is data you collected - but he didn’t. The correct way for him to proceed would have been to let you know he was going to adapt or insert (as these terms seem to best describe what he had done) a figure from your thesis, and indicate as much in the text.

Not acknowledging someone is bad manners, not unethical. If there is too much similarity between “his figure” and “your figure” (or more generally between your work and his work) and you are not a co-author, then it is plagiarism. The threshold with figures is quite high and it’s not uncommon for people to redraw old, already published, figure and change minor details (sometimes only the font) so they are not technically re-using copyrighted material.

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    You miss the point that, in some fields, figures/graphs/etc can have an instant impact on the reader, can say in a second what loads of text painfully aggregates. This is especially so in showing an anomaly to a previously presumed trend. By using the OP's - as yet unpublished - adapted figure (which in itself may include additional interesting data and/or perspectives) as well as his own changes, he may be to some extent pre-publishing and credit stealing, in my view. This is unacceptable in an academic environment where a relationship of trust must exist between colleagues.
    – Trunk
    May 22 at 12:25
  • @Trunk I don’t disagree and I would never do this myself but people do and they argue they rejigged the figures to avoid technical plagiarism. Again I think it’s particularly insensitive to do this to your student, but simply because it’s stupid doesn’t mean it’s unethical or illegal. May 22 at 13:34
  • @Trunk Clearly here by using the same figure template with an old data set rather than the most recent data, the goal is (at least in my mind) to avoid technical plagiarism, and it will lessen the impact of the thesis once the embargo has ended May 22 at 13:38
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    Any professor with a shred of decency would not seek to publish anything related to his student's work till the student had first published the primary paper - a paper in which the professor presumably would be a co-author anyhow. By getting a sole author paper out ahead of his student's paper he is making the student's work look like that of a frontman rather than that of an independent researcher.
    – Trunk
    May 22 at 17:51
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    If you use or modify another person's nontrivial work (the question author stated it was clearly from the specific file they had) without permission or acknowledgement, then it is plagiarism. The similarity of the end result is not the only consideration.
    – Era
    May 22 at 18:57
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The legality and morality really all depend on circumstances, i.e. on how much work was put into the redraft, is the outcome clearly different, or was your figure a "quote" of the figure in the earlier study. Also, who wrote the earlier study?

Here is a scenario. Your prof or their group writes a study with the figure and looses the original pdf file. You publish this study figure in your thesis by reconstructing it, maybe under guidance of your prof. Your figure and the study figure are difficult to tell apart. Your prof or someone else when writing the paper look for the study figure and finds your version. Nothing wrong in my opinion for using it legally (they still have the copyright to derivatives of their original work) and ethically (they were not able to tell that you contributed to the figure).

Here is another scenario. You truly embellish the figure from the earlier study so that it has changed character and you now hold copyright for your substantial changes, as maybe the only intellectual contribution of the original figure are the data. The prof or the person who wrote the section likes your version, is afraid that you would not want to give permission for use, does not know how to cite an embargoed thesis, forgets to ask you, or just assumes that you are fine with it. Then your rights were violated. Even then, what can you gain by asserting your rights? There is not much you can claim. You cannot become a co-author because your contribution is too low and the paper has already been published. You did not suffer any material damage. You benefitted from the work in the group (you got a thesis accepted so you got a degree, I assume) and some give and take in a group is expected. You might have been owned an acknowledgment: "We thank rowrow for taking the figure from X and colleagues [x] and redrawing it." I could live without that.

To long to read: Assert the facts first, e.g. was it intentional, and was your "redraft" different enough. Even if this would have been bad, you missed out on a small note of thanks. These are pretty worthless in academia and completely worthless in industry.

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    You're only addressing copyright, but the most blatant offense here is plagiarism.
    – Stef
    May 22 at 13:35
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    Using a redrawn figure from the group is not plagiarism. The work is in getting the data, not putting them into a figure. There are exceptions for explanatory figures, but the OP does not claim that. Research is not undergraduate studies and different rules apply.
    – tschwarz
    May 22 at 16:40
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    Different rules than what? I don't understand your comment about undergraduate studies. The OP is talking about their thesis advisor, not about an undergraduate student. Reusing a figure from someone else's paper and claiming it's your own is plagiarism. It's as simple as that. I don't know what "rules" you're referring to.
    – Stef
    May 22 at 16:47
  • @Stef … but the thesis director is not using the figure as he has reproduced it using different data. I still think the thesis director showed very poor judgement here, even if he may be technically right. Showing different data using a same template as another publication is not plagiarism. It still in bad taste to do this to your student though, especially if the thesis is embargoed. May 22 at 19:36
  • @ZeroTheHero Apparently you and I understand the OP's words in two very different ways.
    – Stef
    May 22 at 22:09
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Briefly:

If your thesis results had already been published beforehand, your professor should have acknowledged both the original author and you in relation to using this figure. At least a footnote close to the figure referencing the original author's paper and your own paper, if not a more explicit mention in the Results section.

But that isn't what really bothering you here, is it ?

What is - understandably - bugging you is that someone took a small but original part of your upcoming thesis results and presentation then published them ahead of you, the original author.

The professor stole a part of your thunder.

I really get where you are coming from both professionally and emotionally. This is not a mere lack of authoring etiquette that can be apologized away. It is a sneaky (he didn't talk to you about this, let alone ask your permission) attempt to hijack the novel and impressive side of your effort.

I really feel for you in this and I think you should discuss this with the Head of Department. It may well result in a situation leaves you with the task of explaining what is "new knowledge" in your own work since an extension of one of your important figures has been previously published.

How one professor behaves in this regard can have an effect on the behaviour of other faculty. If this type of hijack is uncommented on, no researcher will feel safe in working hard towards their ultimate goal of being the first to put in the results of their years of research and getting most of the credit for everything the extracted from it.

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