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I am currently writing my master's thesis about an already published method which I improved and modified.

When writing the background section of my thesis about the existing method I am tempted to use the graphics of the original paper/thesis when explaining why this method was created in the first place and how it performs compared to other methods.

Is it necessary that I create such graphics myself even if they include the same tests and information or can I use the existing images and cite them accordingly?

What is your general opinion about citing images of other works?

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  • It really is a nice touch to just re-make the graphics yourself (if you can get your hands on the original data) even if you do have permission to use the original graphic. This way you can just cite the source you pulled the data from in the graphic's comment.
    – Jerome
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 7:06
  • @Jerome I got in touch with officials from my university and they agreed that re-making a graphic that was already published is not the way to go. It's probably a copyright issue if the graphic is not that different but most importantly it creates the impression that you created this solely by yourself. When the idea is clearly coming from another work it's better to just use this graphic and cite it accordingly such that there is no impression created in any way that this graphic is coming from you when it's not originally.
    – sam
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 20:05
  • @sam If you use the original graphic, you need explicit written proof of permission, which often must be submitted as a file alongside all theses/articles that use it. If you re-make it, and ensure it looks very different stylistically, and directly cite the source of the data and the original graphic in your graphic's comment---because all of your graphics must have comments, obviously---then there is nothing wrong, and this happens all the time. Feel free to get permission and use the original, but know that university HR often doesn't know what they're talking about.
    – Jerome
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 1:07

2 Answers 2

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Others have explained already that in order to reuse copyrighted content you need to obtain permission from the copyright holder. Here's a how-to:

  • If the original source is a thesis monograph, this would usually be the author,

  • unless it's in the form of a book with a publisher (note that the university may be the publisher), then it may be the publisher (or an open license, see below). The book will then tell you at its very beginning (frontmatter) who the copyright holder is.

  • And in any case, the author must be aware to whom they've signed their copyrights away if they did so. They can thus point you to whom to actually ask.

  • For a journal paper, if it's under an open license such as CC, that license may already allow you to re-use content, and will then also tell you how. It may also specify how to cite.

  • Papers which are not under an open licence: here you need to obtain permision for re-use from the publisher. The big publishers have established processes for this. E.g. SpringerNature displays a "Reprints and Permissions" Link under their online content, which already has "I would like to reuse in a dissertation/thesis" as established category. You fill in the form, and can then expect to get permission pretty much automatically. Again, there's typically a condition that you cite in a specific form, something along the lines of "This image is reproduced from [$ORIGINAL_PAPER] with kind permission by $PUBLISHER".

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  • Your first bullet is unclear. I assume you mean if the original image is in a thesis, not if the future use is for a thesis. And that assumes the author hasn't given copyright to anyone else, a publisher or (possibly) the university.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 18:41
  • @Buffy: thanks I clarified the first point. Thesis published with publisher is the 2nd bullet point, though. And I haven't met a thesis whose copyright was by the university unless the university acts as publisher - I clarified this as well. (Over here, the possibilities to transfer IP rights for student work to the university are limited) Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 18:47
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    Often times publishers give blanket permission to reuse material from published papers in theses and dissertations produced by authors of the papers. Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 19:51
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Citing images is not the same as including them. Presumably those images are under copyright held by others, probably publishers. You have to respect those copyrights in any work to be published.

Even if your thesis is not going to be published, I'd recommend that you employ standard scholarship methods in creating it. While citation absolves you of plagiarism charges, it doesn't permit republishing copyright material.

The problem with images is that they often (not always) employ creative elements, giving a copyright to the creator (most jurisdictions). And, they can also carry a lot of information. So, while quoting a sentence or two from a copyrighted work is normally fair use, copying an image can be considered a significant element of a work. Moreover, one of the concerns in copyright law (most places, again) is that if the new "infringing" work reduces the "value" of the original, it is considered more serious.

"Recreating" the image may not save you, either, as that would, possibly, be considered a "derived work" which is one of the rights covered under (most) copyright law.

The solution to the dilemma is to ask the copyright holder for permission and describe your use. I'd guess that most publishers will agree that it is fine, though it might take some time to get the necessary permission. Use in a thesis will, I hope and expect, be granted.


Note that the caveats in the above are needed because copyright law is normally civil, not criminal, law and it varies in some places.

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  • The author of the original work will consider this fair use so copyright is not my concern. But rather if it is considered good/bad practice in science to do so.
    – sam
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 16:50
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    Careful. The author probably isn't the copyright holder so has no direct say in what is or is not fair use. It is bad practice to breach copyright. The author might have some influence with the publisher, however. And, as a young scholar, copyright should be your concern.
    – Buffy
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 17:12
  • @sam, it depends where and for whom.
    – user12512
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 18:12

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