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In the field I work in, it is customary to use a graphical representation of some mathematical concepts. For my thesis, I have been creating a batch of figures containing these representations. These figures are very similar to those in one of my sources. I am wondering if I should cite that source in some way.

Some of my considerations:

  • The general form of the images is widely used in the field
  • I am making all figures myself, so no direct copying
  • You can let them know where you have seen similar figures to the ones you made yourself. Or just Keep it as simple as possible – user42972 Oct 21 '15 at 9:42
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According to SIAM:

Note: Figures or tables created by someone other than the author or borrowed from a previously published source, even those created by the author him- or herself, must carry an appropriate credit line at the end of the caption. (See section 5.2.5 for additional information.)

Elsevier and IEEE have similar statements, which explicitly include the recreation of the figures.

If you have a source in mind already, it is probably safest just to cite it in the caption. However, if the form of the figure is indisputably widespread, then there is no need to cite it. I would generally follow the same fair use guidelines as does Wikipedia in such cases.

Examples I would not cite (because they are indisputably widespread):

  • Using circles and lines connecting them to represent a graph, G
  • A Hasse Diagram to represent all possible bit combinations
  • The format of a UML diagram (although I would refer to it as such)
  • A figure where I cannot identify an appropriate source with a reasonable amount of effort

Examples I would cite:

  • Any figures that I created for a previous paper ("adapted from [2]")
  • A figure from another paper that demonstrates a specific point, where demonstrating that same point is the reason for recreating the figure
  • A figure reporting data when I have not added to/modified the underlying data
  • Any time that I have a source in mind and I am unclear under which category it falls
  • 1
    The problem is that I am recreating my own images, and using them for my thesis only. So they would not fall under the cited note. However, they are strongly based on the images from my source. As @gerrit also mentioned, citing the source 'to be safe' would probably be the best option. – LSchoon Oct 21 '15 at 10:07
  • Indeed. I reference the selected publishers as representative of what is typical. It at least suggests how to handle attribution of figures when there is no explicit guideline (as in the case of your thesis). – user38309 Oct 21 '15 at 10:12
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    @LSchoon Assuming the content of your thesis is also based on this source, you could get away with a more generic attribution at the start of the chapter or thesis ("The results in this chapter have appeared in the journal of X"). In some fields it is even common to reuse significant portions of text verbatim for the thesis, attributed like this. – Mangara Oct 21 '15 at 11:44
  • @Mangara I like this idea. This is in fact the case, I am using a large review paper to base a big part of the theoretical background of my thesis on. +1. – LSchoon Oct 21 '15 at 12:16
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Is your source recreating a form that is already very common? Then you don't need to cite it, as you could have taken it from a dozen other places and it would have looked the same. You might want to search for the original invention of the representation, although if it's very common this becomes somewhat exaggerated (I cited Mollweide (1805) for the Mollweide projection, but most people wouldn't).

Is the representation that your source uses a new one? In other words, is it original work created by the author of your source? Then you should cite/acknowledge it or you might be accused of plagiarism or even copyright violations.

When in doubt, I would cite the source. If you cite where it wasn't really necessary, consequences are minimal. At worst people will think “why did she add a citation for something trivial/obvious?”. However, if you fail to cite where you should have, consequences could be quite severe.

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    The general form (using this type of representation) is quite common, the specific form (color scheme, shapes used) is not. I believe that my source created their images themselves, but they did not come up with the idea of the representation. – LSchoon Oct 21 '15 at 9:49
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    @LSchoon If you needlessly cite them, worst that can happen is that some people will find it an odd citation (Someone cited a paper by my colleague for an extremely generic statement like clouds have spatial structure). If you don't cite them where you should have, consequences could be far worse. So in doubt, cite. – gerrit Oct 21 '15 at 9:51
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In my thesis, I drew some figures (diagrams) and created some tables based on published figures. The caption in each case ended with something like "Based on a table from reference 42." or in one case "Based on figures from references 23 and 42."

There's never any harm in giving credit where it's due; there's often harm in letting people think you did stuff yourself if you didn't.

To contrast, data figures where I didn't collect the data were generally scanned from the source publication and cited clearly in the form "Figure from reference 17." One or two data figures were obtained directly from the author electronically, and were similarly cited.

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