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It is often the case that you want to make a similar point compared to what you made in previous papers, but in a different context. But you can't use the same figure that you used in a previous paper because that wouldn't be considered original work (it could be called "self-plagiarism", but I don't much like that term).

I'm not interested in the legal (copyright) perspective, which has been covered in this answer. I'm interested in it from a research conduct and ethics perspective.

If I adapt a figure for a new context, what makes it original? Changing the layout? Changing some labels? Changing axes ranges of plots? Adding some new data along with the old? Or must it be all new data?

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  • Do you have an example of a situation where "original figure" requirements do not involve the legal/copyright aspect to which your question applies?
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 27 at 20:31
  • If the figure is a significant result of either work, you'll probably want to attribute it like the answer says, since it's actually important to be honest on what advances you're making in the field at each stage. But if it's not part of the contribution (say, it's a motivating counterexample for your problem), then I would say feel free to add them the same way you did previously if that's more convenient. Yeah, the "self-plagiarism" police on the internet here might take out their pitchforks, but the rest of the world doesn't exactly see it as a crime against humanity.
    – user541686
    Jun 29 at 9:30

3 Answers 3

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Self-plagiarism is reuse of material without appropriate attribution.

It is entirely ethical to reuse a figure from a prior paper as long as you attribute the content of the figure. I have found the phrase "reproduced from" (for exact copies) and "adapted from" (for redrawn or otherwise adjusted material) to be useful here.

For example, if you were publishing a follow-up paper on an experiment with a new analysis of its data, you might include a diagram of the setup taken from the first figure with a caption like:

"The self-operating napkin apparatus was set up in both the full specified configuration as a control condition and in reduced forms omitting either the parrot (E) or the rocket (K), as specified in (Goldberg, 1931). Figure reproduced from (Goldberg, 1931)"

Copyright, as you note, is an entirely independent question.

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  • 6
    It's satisfying to see that you use an actual reference even in the dummy example.
    – justhalf
    Jun 28 at 6:44
  • You left out the "with permission" part of the "reproduced" page. You need to get permission from the copyright holder. It's easier to alter the figure and say "adapted from" Jun 30 at 0:39
  • This is true even if you were the author. Jun 30 at 0:39
  • @ScottSeidman As I said, copyright is an entirely different issue. You may or may not need permission, depending on the original. Case in point, the citation in my example requires no permission, as it is in the public domain, as generally are US Government products and a number of other sources one might wish to reproduce.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 30 at 0:49
  • @jakebeal for public domain, there is no copyright holder. Also, publishers can't take copyright from US government employees writing for the government. That said, it's the "entirely ethical" without specific caveat I'm taking issue with. Jun 30 at 0:52
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In the end it is up to the journal whether your work is original enough for their purposes. However, to avoid self-plagiarism concerns all you need to do is to make clear the relation to prior work. If a figure is reproduced wholesale (which is often appropriate, especially in review articles), state from where it is reproduced (and secure permission to do so). If the layout is changed, state that the figure is adapted from the original. If some of the data in the figure was previously published, clearly state its origin and make clear what data is new.

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In the context of publishing, editors want original figures because previously used ones are copy-righted.

As far as self-plagiarism is concerned: First, this is a concept that covers two different fields: (1) Student work submitted for evaluation and (2) academic articles. The prohibition of self-plagiarism for (1) is the impact on the evaluation of student work. For (2), it is about someone inflating their work (usually for self-promotion) by publishing the same idea multiple times. Using criteria from context (1) for context (2) is misleading (even though I will get down-voted for this opinion).

Therefore, witty formulations from the introduction copied from one work to another without marking them as such is self-plagiarism in context (1) and not in context (2). Using exactly the same idea to write to entirely different articles should be self-plagiarism in context (2) but is usually not in (1). Of course, there is a very large gray zone here.

In the context of your question: Figures can be very complicated and involve art work. I am thinking of a figure showing the different style of bronze age axes between two different sites. That figure should not be copied from one work to another without clearly marking it. Second, figures can be very utilitarian. Assume you have one data set that you use for both papers. You create a scatter graph using mathematica or matplotlip.pyplot. I do not think it is self-plagiarism if you end up using exactly the same figure. The creative novelty is in the data, not the depiction. Changing minor things such as colors or sizes does not change the original sufficiently, but it will make your editorial house happy because it is now harder to claim a copy-right violation.

Should you mark this clearly? The US patent law uses a fictitious "competent engineer" to test for the novelty of a potential invention. A similar standard should appear here, because otherwise terse academic writing will be filled with (adapted from) notes that are entirely superfluous. A figure is often just a way to describe data. If the same data is reused, that reuse needs to be flagged. But changing fonts on a simple scatter plot is silly.

To give a final example: You compare the population of Uruguay and Burundi over the last century from raw data. You cite the data source. The drawing of a graph is so simple that the drawing is not cite-worthy.

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