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I'm in the following situation: I'm a researcher and hold a degree in life sciences. I also like graphic design and occasionally doodle up a figure to include in a report or such. I'm not a professional graphic designer and not being paid for that specifically (though see it as part of my academic obligation). Now my supervising professor noted this and now starts to ask me to create figures for other academic publications I haven't worked on personally. This happened twice so far. Some figures I just modified from existing sources but others are my very own work based on, and tailored to, the academic publication in question. There are a couple of questions arising from this situation but I'm most concerned about the copyright aspect.

I'm a firm believer in the benefits of open access and creative commons and have no problem with anyone reusing and modifying my work for noncommercial purposes. I do have a problem however with academic content being locked away behind a paywall, possibly along with my images. I do not have any influence on which academic publisher is chosen for the articles I design the figures for.

My questions are,

  • Are my designs still mine after being published? This may depend a lot on the publisher in question but can it be generalized? Any experience?
  • Do I have a choice of the copyright licence to be applied to the figures?
  • Can I use my graphics afterwards in any way I like and apply any copyright licence I wish, possibly mentioning “also used in Academic publication x”? For example, could I put them on Wikipedia?

In general, I want to avoid a situation in which I can be hold legally responsible for using my work as I please.

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If the authors of a paper do not specify otherwise, when they transfer copyright of a paper to a publisher, that includes its images. That's what most people do.

But, during the copyright transfer process, an author can specify

  • if there are original images of independent value that they'd like to retain copyright to, or
  • if there are images whose copyright is held by a third party, which they have a license to reuse.

See for example this ACM copyright transfer form.

If you are creating images for papers on which you are not an author, you can retain copyright of your images and just give a license to use in the paper. The authors will have to specify on submission that they are using third party images, and show that they have permission from you to use them.

If you are creating images for your own paper, you may be able to claim them as an "artistic" image and retain the copyright, depending on the publisher.

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