I am currently writing a proposal for my research topic and I want to copy figures from published articles into my proposal document. To put it in perspective, almost all the copied figures are to go in the “Literature review” section of the document.

Is it necessary to send an email to each and every author requesting permissions to copy the figures, even though complete citations and references are included? I referred to the following link:
MITLibraries: Reuse of content in thesis. From what it says, copying images in thesis (with correct citations) seems to be valid under US copyright law.


3 Answers 3


For figures from your own papers, it would depend on the copyright transfer agreement you (or the corresponding author) signed upon publication. However, all copyright agreements I know explicitly authorize reuse of content for academic theses.

As an example: the American Chemical Society, which does not leave the authors too many rights, includes this wording:

Authors may reuse all or part of the Submitted, Accepted or Published Work in a thesis or dissertation that the Author writes and is required to submit to satisfy the criteria of degree-granting institutions. Such reuse is permitted subject to the ACS’ “Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research"

For figures from others’ papers, a thesis is not very different from any other publication (see the related question about blogging). Unless your institution has a specific agreement with publishers (as MIT seems to have), you have to either:

  • ask for permission; these days, it's all done online and once you have located the appropriate form for a publisher, you can make your requests and get all the answers the next day
  • rely on fair use in the US, or similar law in other countries; around me, most people actually do that, either knowingly or just out of ignorance :)

Copyright laws vary by country, so this answer may be UK specific.

To be safe rather than sorry, it probably is a good idea to copyright clear third party works, especially if your dissertation will eventually be uploaded to an online depository, which is becoming more common. Imperial College London, as an example, specify that proof of permission to include third party works needs to be included in the electronic copy of the thesis and this may be a policy at other universities too. In addition, the source needs to be carefully referenced in a note to the figure. Not doing this can cause unwanted delays in depositing the thesis in the archive.

In my case, I found it rapid and free to include single figures from published journal articles in the thesis. Just as F'x says, requesting permissions can be done in a day, although it's probably best not to leave it to the last minute. I was sent through to Copyright Clearance Center's Rightslink from the published journal articles each time I requested permission and the process was straightforward.


I created an account on copyright.com and using the same I was able to get permissions for more than half of the figures for which I needed to do so. This way is particularly useful for students in the United States as there's now one place where most of the requesting and granting can take place. The experience is like shopping from an online website (they literally have a shopping cart) and in general the process was more convenient than I had thought what it would be.

For a subset of the remaining papers, where the publisher was the copyright holder, I emailed the publisher and I was able to get a response in less than a couple of working days. This was true for a few papers from Europe and the UK. For the papers where the holder was the author, I emailed the author. For all figures for which I didn't get a reply or I got a reply which quoted a significant cost for reusing the figures, I simply removed the figures from my literature review.

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