A year ago, I finished my Master's degree and ended 6 months of working for an incredibly manipulative and demanding supervisor. We started working on a publication of my Master's results, which is awaiting final approval (post-corrections) at the journal we submitted to.

Last week, I read a paper this supervisor had published recently, which had a figure taken directly from my Master's dissertation. Our in-press article wasn't cited, and I wasn't co-author, referenced, or even mentioned in the acknowledgements. No direct reference was given for the figure, but the text surrounding it made it sound as if it had come from another article by my supervisor from last year.

It seems pretty clear to me that this is plaigarism - we worked on this project together, certainly, but the final product was a result of my work and their guidance.

My problem is, I don't know how to deal with it. We are currently co-authoring a paper, so I don't want to cause a rupture. I also plan to continue working in this field, and would like to avoid having a senior researcher and previous supervisor to be angry. At the same time, I don't want them to get away with using my work, and taking all the credit for it.

I will certainly tell them that I feel uncomfortable with how they used my work, but realistically, what can I expect/hope to happen here?

UPDATE - the figure in question is an overview of a simulation model I created, so is pretty much the core part of my Master's work.

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    Can you elaborate a bit on this "figure"? are we talking about a simple illustration of some concept that you have drawn, or is the figure a research outcome of your thesis? (that is, is this primarily about him using the figure you have drawn, or is it about him selling your research results as his?)
    – xLeitix
    Jan 14, 2015 at 13:19
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    Apart from everything else, there could be a copyright issue if you want to use the figure in your new paper.
    – Davidmh
    Jan 14, 2015 at 14:26
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    There is no benefit waiting for you after pretty much any path you might take here, but you can take this as a valuable lesson in academia: don't get associated with this kind of people.
    – Miguel
    Jan 14, 2015 at 14:29
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    I don't want to cause a rupture. — You should. Dealing with abuse is more important than one paper.
    – JeffE
    Jan 14, 2015 at 14:50
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    Contact the editor.
    – gerrit
    Jan 14, 2015 at 19:36

5 Answers 5


The issue here is somewhat thorny. Relative to you, however, there is unfortunately not much benefit in any event, because citing the figure is not normally enough to merit authorship. All you would have is one extra citation, which would likely get "lost," because the publication with which it corresponds doesn't exist yet.

So I would make sure that your new paper cites the old paper, since it is the first to publish the figure. I would also make sure that you mention politely the concerns that you have over the use of the figure without citing.

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    I am not sure I understand the suggestion about having the new paper cite the old one. I would recommend that the new paper actually cites your thesis for the figure. If you cited your supervisor's paper for the figure, you would be compounding the problem as you are giving her the credit for your figure. But you don't want to publish the figure without citation as that may breach copyright (because it is already published).
    – JenB
    Jan 15, 2015 at 0:35
  • The issue is that the published article is now the "reference" for the figure. You can't reuse it without having the appropriate permissions, which usually includes a citation to the article in question. However, you can also cite the thesis when you use the figure. ("Republished from Ref. X, and adapted from Fig. Y in Ref. Z," for instance.)
    – aeismail
    Jan 15, 2015 at 13:35
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    I'm not actually sure that's true. The Masters thesis was published before the article and contained the figure. It therefore has the copyright. The supervisor who used the figure would have signed a copyright document but just because she claimed the rights doesn't mean she owns them. In fact, I suspect that the OP could write to the editor of that journal pointing out the copyright breach, but that would create the unwanted rupture.
    – JenB
    Jan 17, 2015 at 23:49

One possible approach is to discuss this by presenting it as a favor to you (e.g. "I'd have been neat if that number could have been cited to this thesis, because that would help me have more citations a the beginning of my research career") as opposed to accusatory approach of "You ripped me off".


It's hard to fix the past... Rather think of the future... I would (and in past case have) let the person know that you feel you should have either been a coauthor on the paper (preferred outcome usually) or been acknowledged as contributing to the paper (specifically all non-original figures must be acknowledged as to source for copyright reasons and there is the right to be known as author and originator in relation to all aspects of the paper you have contributed to).

If you are one of many students this supervisor has in this area, and/or the figure just encapsulates ideas that your supervisor has provided, then the shoe could be on the other foot, and the supervisor may not even be aware that you feel ownership of the figure (or other aspects of the "joint research"). In your thesis/papers you need to acknowledge where ideas have originated from other people - in a thesis this is likely to be restricted to a specific acknowledgements section.

If a figure is likely to be needed in future papers, I tend to note that it is copyright by me and reproduced with permission in all papers, and thus copyright is not transferred to the first publisher of such a paper. When I circulate things (even just charts and figures) I sometimes add a copyright if it is something that I am particularly proud of and/or want to retain control of.

If I were in your shoes my aim would be to ensure that I was consulted about future papers (given the opportunity to be an author, or acknowledged, or to waive my rights).

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    I tend to note that it is copyright by me and reproduced with permission in all papers — Actually, at least in computer science, copyright to figures belongs to the publisher of the first paper that uses them, although many publishers allow authors to reuse the same figures in subsequent papers, as long as the first paper is properly cited. In practice, of course, nobody follows the rules.
    – JeffE
    Jan 14, 2015 at 16:18
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    @JeffE: The journal would like to hold copyright, but the assignment is invalid if it wasn't executed by the true copyright holder. In this case, OP retains copyright to his figure until he assigns it.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 14, 2015 at 19:30
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    It is not hard at all to fix the past. Contacting the editor of the journal is the correct thing to do in these cases.
    – nico
    Jan 14, 2015 at 22:59
  • @nico - It is impossible to change the past, but contacting the editor creates one of many possibly difficult futures. If it is a hardcopy journal, they will not recall all the hardcopies, and even a soft journal is unlikely to change the original. Errata are unlikely to be created for such a minor breach, but might be. This is likely to cause embarrassment and difficulty to the authors and destroy any possibility to collaborate in the future. It depends on the significance of the figure and the extent to which which your supervisor contributed, and in this case best to contact them. Jan 15, 2015 at 9:46
  • @JeffE - No, a copyright assignment covers only those things that are original to the paper, transferred by the author, and not excluded from the transfer as subject to a different copyright arrangement. The first dissemination of the material (figure) need not be a paper, but can be a book, a thesis, lecture notes/handout, or an earlier version of the paper. When a figure is necessary to multiple publications (including thesis, notes, book and/or papers) I am not in general willing to transfer copyright, which is fine even if thesis is university internal or identifiable work is unpublished. Jan 15, 2015 at 9:56

I have had a couple of similar cases before. This is a form of both plagiarism and copyright breach (these two are not necessarily always the same). They had to do 2 things before using your figure in their article: (1) cite you; (2) Provide the journal with the written permission obtained from you, for using your figure in their paper.

The failure to do any of the above 2 items is problematic. In theory, you can (1) write to the journal and ask for the retraction of the plagiarizing article after providing sufficient evidence. (2) write to the publisher and ask the same. (3) write to the authors and ask them to send an erratum to the journal (or ask the journal to ask them). (4) If they did not do anything, sue the irresponsible parties.

What happens in practice though? An article stole a figure and even a table of my article. Interestingly enough, they had not even bothered to re-write the content of my table, but had only take a snapshot of it, and had put it exactly as is, in their own article. They had not stated at any point of their article that those figure/table were picked from my article, nor had they contacted me previously. So I contacted the journal for many times, to no avail. Then I contacted the authors (there was no independent publisher to contact). They did not respond as well! So if I wanted to sue them, I had to fly abroad, and I doubt the court in their country had any stringent rules against such copyright breaches.

So in practice, there is usually little you can do, as journals heavily tend to sweep these issues under the carpet. Another article had plagiarized most of the content of my article, without citing me. I contacted every one (journal, publisher, authors)... After numerous emails, the journal told me they will not retract it, and if I want to sue them, I can go to the court in their country!!!!

I now understand the complexity of the case, in which the author of the copied figure is also the author of the original figure.

Because the journal owns the copyright of the article content, not the authors themselves. So eventhough the author can claim that (s)he has used their own figure twice, the journal still has the right to sue them, since (s)he has breached the copyright of the journal.

But if the original article was an open access one, I think it is fine to use the image twice as its copyright belongs to the author (although it is not a good practice to use repeated content).

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    The above question is a bit different though, as the supervisor that used the figure is also a co-author in the original article that included the figure. Also what sort of figure we are talking about. I am more than happy to share with my co-authors and students any of my figures if it is necessary as it also helps maintaining a consistent look amongst publications.
    – o4tlulz
    Jan 15, 2015 at 8:02
  • Uh I think in that case, they should still seek the consent of the first journal and especially the publisher, in case the work is not open access. I think so, because the journal / publisher owns the copyright of the content of the article, and eventhough the author can claim that (s)he has used their own figure twice, the journal still has the right to sue them, since (s)he has breached the copyright of the journal. But if the original article was an open access one, I think it is fine to use the image twice (although it is not a good practice to use repeated content).
    – Vic
    Jan 15, 2015 at 8:11

You could make an anonymous tip about your case to Retraction Watch.

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