When I wrote my first paper, I experimented a bit with different colour styles until I found one that was both clear and aesthetically pleasing. I’ve since used it for all papers where I was first author. One of these submissions has been with a master’s student, who is now writing up his thesis.

He used the colour definitions from the paper for the figures in his thesis, which slightly irks me. Partly it is because this makes it harder to see which figures are cited from the paper and which are his own, partly because I put some effort into it. Is this so minor I should just let it go?

Update: As Wrzlprmft pointed out, using a consistent color scheme within a thesis is important for readability. Since recommending to use something and then requiring acknowledgement would be weird, I let it go.

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    A suggestion for the future: If you don't want your student or colleague to use your template or scheme, let him or her know right from the start. Communicating your preferences clearly to people will avoid unnecessary bitterness. Aug 18, 2015 at 15:43
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    Sharing color schemes is not uncommon in the scientific community and I would take it as a compliment if one of my students wanted to use my color scheme.
    – Memj
    Aug 18, 2015 at 16:27
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    Imitation is the third sincerest form of flattery (second only to citation and including someone as a co-author, naturally).
    – corsiKa
    Aug 18, 2015 at 16:45
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    I don't think you can patent/copyright something like this. And this is not an oversight, it would be really stupid to allow one man to hoard a color scheme (whether by legal or cultural fiat). I think your best bet is to reevaluate your feelings.
    – Jonathon
    Aug 18, 2015 at 21:45
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    this makes it harder to see which figures are cited from the paper — The figures from other papers are the ones with explicit citations, and the figures that are his own are the ones without explicit citations. Otherwise, he's either lying or plagiarizing.
    – JeffE
    Aug 19, 2015 at 4:54

4 Answers 4


Unless I totally misunderstand what kind of colours we are talking about, your student did what I would consider best practice. Using a consistent colour scheme for all figures in a publication or presentation is a good thing for the following reasons:

  • It is aesthetically pleasing, in particular on posters and presentations.
  • If two plots have colour axis for the same variable or measure, it facilitates comparing them.
  • If colours encode the same things across plots (e.g., red is always species A, blue is always species B), it increases readability, as the reader does not always have to check the encoding for each figure.

This also holds across publications, if they are about the same topic.

this makes it harder to see which figures are cited from the paper and which are his own

Citations should suffice to indicate this. You cannot rely on stylistic mismatches to detect images from other sources anyway.

I put some effort into it

As Jakebeal already noted, developing a colour scheme is rarely a scientific achievement. And even if you consider it to be one, your student can cite it and reuse it. After all, being reused is what scientific results are for. Remember that many scientists use plotting and typesetting programs developed by other scientists.

An acknowledgement does not hurt though, but I would probably not be very insistent on it.

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    When considering consistency, it makes total sense that he reuses the color scheme and I would even recommend it now. Thanks for pointing it out! Since recommending to use something and then requiring acknowledgement seems tacky, I will just let it go.
    – user54114
    Aug 18, 2015 at 17:03
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    @user54114 Take it as a compliment that not only you consider it nice :) I'm always pleased when people ask me: "What template for XYZ do you use? I really like it."
    – yo'
    Aug 18, 2015 at 20:01
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    +1 for "Citations should suffice to indicate [which figures are from paper, which are student's contribution]." Aug 20, 2015 at 9:08

Except in very unusual cases, a color scheme is not a meaningful scientific contribution. Just take it as a compliment and let it go.

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    Still, I think that full disclaimers are nice (especially when the style is not (yet) common and the reader may benefit from seeing the source of inspiration). Acknowledgements are not only for scientific contributions. Aug 18, 2015 at 20:13

Isn't science supposed to be all about sharing knowledge? I quite regularly get annoyed by colleagues who are unwilling to share lecture notes (or color schemes) because "they have put some time and effort into it". That's such a poor argument -- it's not like that time would be wasted by sharing it, rather the opposite: if you share with me, I'll share with you, and we're both better off for it.

So take the use of your color scheme as a compliment that you developed something that worked, and make sure your students spends her time doing something productive rather than having to develop her own color scheme.

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    "it's not like that time would be wasted by sharing it, rather the opposite: if you share with me, I'll share with you, and we're both better off for it." - I agree the time would not at all be wasted; even though some people will not agree, I'd stop even earlier than this: If you share with me, and I use yours, there are already two people who have benefitted from the time and effort put into it rather than one. (Of course, that is spoken from my point of view as someone whose primary motivation for creating open source software is the hope that the code might be useful for strangers.) Aug 19, 2015 at 9:35
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    @O.R.Mapper -- that's why I spend most of my time writing open source software as well. I like it if people use my stuff :-) Aug 19, 2015 at 13:57

If you didn't want this student to use your color scheme, you shouldn't have let him look at your figures. Of course that applies not only to the student, but to everyone in the scientific community. If you really want to keep a color scheme to yourself, unfortunately you will have to keep to yourself the ideas which you would use that color scheme to express. If you do try to disseminate your ideas, and are especially unlucky, your color scheme will catch on and be used worldwide in very high profile publications (horror!).

As others have mentioned, a color scheme is rarely a scientific achievement. I would add that if you believe that it is, you may want to publish a technical note in a psychophysics journal or something. If this sounds ridiculously over the top, then perhaps you should reconsider whether your color scheme is so groundbreaking that you deserve acknowledgment. If you think something is worth acknowledging, you must give people something to acknowledge.

The best argument I can imagine for discouraging this student from using your color scheme is if he is misusing it in a way that obfuscates the intended content. Otherwise you might well be pleased that your efforts led to something so useful that others have adopted it.

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