In this several times up-voted answer, it is suggested, among other things, that 'if someone using an image [...] that they do not own (it) is inappropriate and should be first reported to the PI of the paper and, potentially, the publisher if no action is taken.'

In my understanding, using images you do not own is not a good idea, it's illegal in many countries and the owners of the copyrights might react and claim their rights, but it's not plagiarism per se.

Let's consider the authors of an image processing paper who use a copyright-protected stock photograph to test their algorithm. They can cite the source of the image, in which case they would still be infringing copyright. But let's say they don't: they are not claiming that the photograph is their own, they just figure the readers won't care.

Edit: I recently came across a paper where it was written that images were from a commercially available CD of example images, without saying which one. In this case it's clear that they do not claim that they generated the images themselves but they didn't give any reference.

Is this academic misconduct that should be reported?

  • I feel like intent (though hard to prove) should be important here. Academics make honest mistakes from time to time. They may even repeat those mistakes if they do not realise that they are making them. Unless the consequences of those mistakes are very large, that should be treated differently from people who set out to systematically undermine the scientific endeavour through repeated acts of premeditated dishonesty.
    – Ubiquitous
    Nov 7, 2014 at 10:40
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    By not citing something, you are in fact claiming that something is your own.
    – StrongBad
    Nov 7, 2014 at 10:42
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    @StrongBad should we assume authors have gone back in time and taken the photograph of Lenna, if they don't cite the original Playboy issue?
    – Cape Code
    Nov 7, 2014 at 11:08
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    Using copyrighted material that you don't own, without permission, is not necessarily copyright infringement. In the U.S., we have fair use: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use#Fair_use_under_United_States_law . The law is complicated, but it says, in part, "the fair use of a copyrighted work [..] for purposes such as [...] scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."
    – user1482
    Nov 7, 2014 at 17:02
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    Even apart from fair use, it is not clear to me that using a copyrighted image to test the algorithm would in itself be a copyright violation. If the authors had legally obtained the image, they could use it all they want; they just can't redistribute it. In other words, you could publish a paper describing how you tested the algorithm on a copyrighted image; you just couldn't include the image itself in the paper.
    – BrenBarn
    Nov 7, 2014 at 22:09

2 Answers 2


To the best of my understanding the two differ in the following way:

  • Plagiarism is primarily an ethical issue: it refers to a false claim of creative work.

  • Copyright is primarily a legal issue: is refers to use of a work without a legal right to do so.

They can be confusing to differentiate because a person committing one is also often committing the other as well. However, it is possible to violate copyright without plagiarizing and to plagiarize without violating copyright. For example:

  • Darwin's "Origin of Species" text is old enough that it has entered the public domain, and thus is no longer protected by copyright. A person who claimed chunks of it as their own would be plagiarizing, but not violating copyright.

  • If a person reproduces an image in a new paper with appropriate citation to its original but fails to pay the publisher of the original paper a $35 fee that publisher demands, then they have not plagiarized, but are in violation of copyright.

From a scientific perspective, plagiarism is a major problem, since it is a deliberate ethical violation that significantly undermines the credibility of the author. Copyright violations, on their own, are much less of a big deal, since they may well be caused by legitimate misunderstanding or disagreement about the interpretation of a minor unclear point in a gigantic wall of legalese.

Thus, in the example given of image processing being applied to an unattributed image: if the contents of the image are not of scientific significance, I would interpret it as primarily an issue of copyright and thus not a significant violation worth reporting (as a scientist).


The concepts of plagiarism and copyright are largely orthogonal.

Plagiarism is about taking credit for somebody else's work. You could copy and paste an entire book, and so long as you made it clear whose work it was, it would not be plagiarism. (although it would be a bad idea for other reasons!)

Copyright is about using a copyrighted work without permission. Briefly, any work that somebody creates is automatically covered by copyright, held by its creator. The copyright holder may sign that copyright over to another party (this is common when submitting to journals), or they may place a work in the public domain, but otherwise, any use of that work without a license can constitute copyright infringement (There are various exceptions to this, such as Fair Use, that depend on national laws in specific countries). Some works are licensed under broad licenses such as Creative Commons, which allows anybody to use the work for certain purposes. Others are not, and a specific license for a specific use must be obtained from the copyright holder.

Two examples: Imagine that I am building a presentation for an upcoming conference. For slide one I find a great image that is in the public domain, and I put it into my presentation and claim that it is my own work. In this case I have plagiarised, but not violated copyright. For slide two, I find another suitable image, but one that is not in the public domain and does not have any permissive license attached. I use it, crediting the photographer. In this case I have not plagiarised, but I have infringed the creator's copyright.

EDIT: Just realised that I answered the question in the title, rather than the (different) question in the question body. Strictly speaking I think that the authors of your hypothetical paper have both plagiarised the image and violated copyright with it. Whether this constitutes academic misconduct is a question that I shall leave for those with more experience in such matters.

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