Assuming I'm writing a review article and I'd like to use figures after [1]" or similar? How am I expected to deal with copyright? Obviously a review article is going to use existing figures, more or less--that's the point. It seems from sites like IEEE that the expected practice is to pay, per figure, for each graphic used. Is that really how things work? Or is there some "fair use" clause that can be invoked?

  • As a practical issue, you will probably want to contact the publishers of the papers anyway, in order to get the original high-quality image files. – Senex Apr 9 '14 at 21:07
  • I somewhat doubt that you "obviously want to use existing figures" in a review article. At least in my field, a review article is more than just summarizing previous work. Usually, much more time is spent on comparing and contrasting these works, so in all the review articles I wrote and recently read, the problem really never even came up. If you feel you need to copy & paste an entire figure, chances are you are too close to the source material to produce a review that actually adds value. – xLeitix Mar 30 '17 at 17:33

The rules vary widely by publisher here. It also depends on whose work you're "copying." If it's your own graphic, then there's usually no issue associated with it. However, if it belongs to someone else, then you should either request the permission from the rights holder, or redraw the figure yourself (if it's a schematic, then this would eliminate copyright issues).

Similarly, a journal or publisher may allow you to reuse people's work from within the same publisher's journals without fee. But again, this is something the individual publishers determine.


Usually you have to obtain a permission (there are exceptions, for example if you "redraw"¹ content). Your publisher may request permissions for you! Here is a how to for the most common way, if you have to do it on your own:

  • Search for the title of the paper containing the figure you would like to reuse on Google (for example: An RNA-Sequencing Transcriptome and Splicing Database of Glia, Neurons, and Vascular Cells of the Cerebral Cortex)
  • Identify the website of the journal and click on it (sometimes the first result refers you to a reference aggregation site, researchgate or personal webpage) (in my example this would be http://www.jneurosci.org/content/34/36/11929 )
  • Look for a button or link saying "Rights and permissions", "Request Permissions" or similar. Every journal has it at a different spot and sometimes it is hidden behind some floating "Info box" (Tip: Search for the words right or permission in your browser) (see screenshot for the location in my example) enter image description here
  • Following this link you are usually taken to the Copyright Clearance Center on copyright.com which can automatically proceed most of your requests
  • Follow the steps indicated at the Copyright Clearance Center, indicating how you want to use the content (in your case this would be "Republish in a journal/magazine) (in my example I have to identify the correct publication first, then enter the year of publication, and afterwards choose how I want to use it)
  • You will eventually get to a page where you have to select which rights you would like to procure (e.g. publishing worldwide, doing translations, modifying the figure and son on). Important here is also do select your role in this process too (on whose behalf are you requesting copyright) (see screenshot for the categories to be filled in in my example) enter image description here
  • Afterwards a price should be quoted for you, which may be 0 if you are allowed to reuse without paying.
  • Accept the conditions and terms on that page
  • Print a .pdf copy of the confirmation for your documents. Usually they'll also send you an email. You will likely be asked by your new publisher to send them this permission statement.
  • Make sure to acknowledge the publisher in the figure caption. Example: Figure 1: description of figure. From Crowell et al. 2014 (reference), with permission from StackExchange (publisher).

If you cannot find a Rights or Permission link on the webpage of the article try the following:

  • Identify the publisher of the journal in question
  • Search on Google for the name of the publisher together with "Reusing figures", "Permission and Rights" or "Permission request" or similar. Major publishers usually have instructions on how to do this somewhere on their web page.

If you cannot find that information either or if you have a specific question write to the publisher's permission department (most of the times you can find that email address on their website). From experience I can say that they are slow to answer and that they usually send you a generic "please do it the usual way" email first. Just write them again in that case. Consider that this takes time (they give 30 business days (~ 1.5 month) as expected answer time), so don't do it last minute.

As aeismail mentioned there are good chances that you can reuse your own, previously published content and content published in the same publication you plan to publish your paper in, without to much hassle (write to the publisher's permissions department).

¹meaning: substantially change so that it can be considered a new work, see also Figure reproduction, adaptation and redrawing by Wiley.com


Or is there some "fair use" clause that can be invoked?

Fair use exists in some jurisdictions (e.g., the US) but not others (e.g., the UK). The rules for fair use are somewhat vague, and most publishers would prefer not to rely on it. Talk to the journal that you're writing the article for, and ask them how they like to handle this kind of thing.

If there is a practice in some fields of paying royalties for this kind of thing, then I'm not aware of it. Authors want their work cited in review papers.

If the figures you want to use are from an open-access journal, then you should read the license of that journal.

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