There are a number of questions about accessing the data corresponding to publications. In the recent years, many journals have improved their data availability policies and this is less of an issue. On the other hand, I do not find much about the extent of exploiting these data that is thought acceptable.

Firstly, I believe most scientific communities accept that other's data are replotted along with similar data acquired by the authors (showing repeatability) or along with similar data from yet other groups (meta-analysis type of figure). Still, I have the impression that in many communities people rather plot only their own data and comment that this is the same behavior as reported by so & so. So is there a policy? Should one ask for author's permission? Should one specify exactly what data of theirs will be shown along with what other data?

Then, there's the question of data re-analysis. For instance, say authors have published the time evolution of several variables of interest, and Methods make clear that these were acquired simultaneously on the same sample. Is it OK e.g. to publish separately from them a figure which plots one variable from their dataset against another? I guess the answer to this question can be yes or no, depending on the way this is done. I expect that in most cases, having this plot with only their data as my Fig 1, possibly overlaid with a model prediction, and being the main result of my paper, will be judged problematic. Is it? If yes, what is the red line between acceptable re-analysis (e.g. I've already seen data re-plotted in log scale, but the figures with this data were in supplementary materials only). And of course, same questions as above apply.

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    You can do anything with previously published data without consent from the authors. Problem is finding something interesting and new enough that warrants such a publication. Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 18:32
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    @MaartenBuis: That's a very strong statement to make, and in this generality, I would guess it's most probably wrong. Understanding the applicable laws and contracts would be complicated enough if one knew the jurisdiction, but it seems like we don't, so a sweeping statement like that is unlikely to stand.
    – RQM
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 16:32
  • @RQM Legally your are right, we can't know the legal position of any specific jurisdiction. However, culturally MaartenBuis is completely correct. Once something is published it is regarded as pubilc domain and you are free to do with it as you wish, as long as you cite the original publication. Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 15:48
  • @IanSudbey: I don't know what "culturally" is supposed to mean in this context, but your last sentence is most definitely wrong; that's why, for example, licenses exist, i.e. to define what you're permitted to do with published material and what you're prohibited from doing. Let's hope your advice ("free to do as you wish") doesn't cause anyone trouble!
    – RQM
    Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 12:20

1 Answer 1


If you use the figure directly, you'd best get the permissions in line. If you modify the figure, you most likely don't need to, but properly attribute (i.e., "Modified from...."

My own preference for stuff like this is to use a tool like datathief to grab the data from the figure, and remake my own figure, formatted optimally to make my point. Attribute the original.

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    Thanks for your answer. Of course I meant to attribute any re-used data. I understand that your feeling is that data doesn't always need to be made available and can sometimes be reverse-engineered from figures (if authors report a distribution, you may only get the mean and some percentiles, though). But then, to what extent would you re-analyse their data, that is, plot it with different axes than what they have?
    – Joce
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 15:18
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    There are zero restrictions. I would do whatever I felt I could scientifically defend. Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 15:30

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