My book is about a theory that is based upon existing theories and recent experiments in biology. Since biology is not my main field, and since my theory is interesting to the general public, I self-published my book.

The response to my book has been good.

But now I am afraid because I have described several mainstream biological experiments in my book, which although I accessed through my institution, and are not in the public domain. I was careful to cite the original research and describe results in a short, non technical way, in my own words. I also included several graphs in my book that I drew myself in a qualitative way, based upon the diagrams of the research papers.

So, can there be any legal issues with my book? A friend of mine is suggesting that I need to get permission from publishers of the research papers before describing the content of their papers, because I used their material for commercial purpose (to write my book).

I must clarify that the experiments that I have described are only a part of my book, about 20%, and the rest of the book uses the experiments to develop a semi-original biological theory of my own. I needed to describe the experiments to let the readers know the basis of my arguments.

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    If describing other people's research required their consent or their publisher's consent or had to be done accurately and responsibly, a lot of people would be in trouble.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 26, 2016 at 15:01
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    If you couldn't do exactly what you are describing, then there would be no textbooks.
    – kmm
    Jun 26, 2016 at 18:10
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    There is similarity to an artist painting an image (or author writing a story) that is later critiqued by an art (or literature) critic. The critic may offer some pretty significant descriptions of the artist's work. The artist still owns rights to the image and the critic has done nothing wrong. Jun 26, 2016 at 18:44

2 Answers 2


In general, copyright protects words, sounds, images, and similar artifacts. Copyright does not, however, protect ideas or knowledge. The use of ideas and knowledge can be protected by a patent. No intellectual property right, however, can be used to prevent a person from describing a published piece of information in their own words.

In your case, it sounds as though you are taking what you have learned by reading about this scientific work and presenting it with your own original words and images. As such, I think that you have nothing to fear, as long as you are certain to give appropriate references and credit to the original authors whose work you are describing. In a popular science publication, such citations might be more informal than in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, but as long as they are clear to the reader, what you describe doing appears to be entirely ethical and appropriate.

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    It should be noted that the bit about credit is an issue of plagiarism, not copyright, and as such is something academics care about but most legal authorities do not.
    – user4512
    Jun 26, 2016 at 15:55
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    "No intellectual property right, however, can be used to prevent a person from describing a published piece of information in their own words" - unless it's about the souls of some aliens in a volcano... people have been sued just for mentioning it.
    – vsz
    Jun 26, 2016 at 17:31
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    @all Just curious - given that OP accessed this research through his/her institution, would said institution (generally) be entitled to a cut of any profits accrued? If yes, would it chase the same for, say, a moderately successful book? Obviously local policies will vary, but is there a well populated median of them? Jun 26, 2016 at 18:18
  • @vsz You can sue for anything you want in the USA, and if you invest heavily enough in lawyers you may even win. That's why anti-SLAPP statutes get enacted.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 26, 2016 at 19:50
  • @stochasticboy321, the University would not be entitled to a cut of any profits solely on the basis of it proving access to the research any more than a non-University library would. Jun 26, 2016 at 23:52

In addition to what Jakebeal said in his answer, what you are worried about is common practice in review articles, science journalism, textbooks, and of course other popular-science books. Producing either of these would be extremely tedious if there were a copyright issue. Also, if this were an issue, I should have encountered it in my experience with the former two.

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