Retaining copyright for figures in academic publications to allow easy citation and reuse

Malte Elson
Nov 11, 2016 · 3 min read

1. Scientists routinely cannot reuse or quote figures in publications, even their own, due to copyright agreements.
2. Figures can be published selectively under a different license that allows reuse (e.g. CC-BY).
3. Reusing and citing figures is no longer restricted by copyright agreements with publishers.

The use of graphs, figures, and tables in academic publications is ubiquitous — and for good reason. Accompanying scientific writing with graphic representations can aid the understanding of complex data or relationships between variables, theoretical arguments and hypotheses, or other information on which conclusions are founded. Producing informative and aesthetic visualizations can be cumbersome, and an abundance of general and discipline-specific best-practice guidelines has accumulated (e.g., Franzblau & Chung, 2012).

Ironically, scientists frequently constrain the potency of their most adept visualizations by including them in their scientific publications. While other researchers are free to directly quote short excerpts of texts in their own works, “quoting” a figure usually requires obtaining explicit permission from the copyright holder (usually the publishing company), and may even involve substantial fees. Naturally, this also extends to the original author(s) of figures when they plan to reuse them in subsequent publications. Thus, graphical representations can become “trapped” in their original instance due to copyright agreements with academic publishers.

Scientists often respond by manually rebuilding figures, a process that is not only quite laborious, but also a legal grey area, as recreated versions of copyrighted illustrative material usually fall under derivative copyright, which, again, may involve obtaining permission and submitting the redrawn figure to the copyright holder for confirmation. Further, it essentially perpetuates the exact same concerns for any new version of a figure.

Fortunately, there is a solution that is both simple and effective: Scientists can selectively publish their figures under a different license that allows reuse with proper attribution credit (e.g. CC-BY) before utilizing them in manuscripts published under a more restrictive license. This ensures free, uncomplicated, and unlimited reproduction of the material by anyone, including its original authors. The figures are essentially reused the first time they appear in a scientific publication, accompanied by a proper reference to its source. Figures can be published, for example, through a personal website, university repository, or other services (e.g. Figshare, the Open Science Framework), as long as the licensing model is declared (e.g. in a matching document).

Can you provide an example?
For a book chapter on frustration and aggression, Johannes Breuer and I created a simple figure that summarizes the central arguments of Berkowitz (1989). To make this figure reusable (by us and others!), we published it (hey, I never claimed knowing how to make aesthetic figures) under a CC-BY license on Figshare (Breuer & Elson, 2016), which even assigned it a DOI. This figure is included and cited (“Figure by Breuer & Elson, 2016; available at under a CC-BY4.0 license.”) in the forthcoming chapter (Breuer & Elson, in press).

Won’t publishers object to this?
It’s possible, I guess. I have never personally experienced this, nor have I ever heard a publisher complaining about this practice. In fact, in their correspondence regarding the above example, Wiley’s project editor was very forthcoming, and did not seem to mind a preemptive figure publication under a different license at all. Generally, publishers only seem to be concerned with legal issues of reusing figures, and using CC-BY figures is less ambiguous than the current practice.

Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin, 106(1), 59–73. doi: 10.1037/0033–2909.106.1.59

Breuer, J., & Elson, M. (in press). Frustration-aggression theory. In P. Sturmey (Ed.), The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Breuer, J., & Elson, M. (2016). The frustration–aggression hypothesis according to Berkowitz (1989). figshare.

Franzblau, L. E., & Chung, K. C. (2012). Graphs, tables, and figures in scientific publications: The good, the bad, and how not to be the latter. The Journal of Hand Surgery, 37(3), 591–596. doi: 10.1016/j.jhsa.2011.12.041

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