How to use and cite figures from other sources

by Thomas Mejtoft

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than out predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

John of Salisbury

Standing on the shoulders of giants is great way of reaching further when doing research. That is why it is also important to give the appropriate credit to the ones that we are basing our work on. Hence, when including figures or tables from another source in your work, it is important to include appropriate citations. Tables are text or numerical values displayed in rows and columns and Figures are all other illustrations, e.g. drawings, photographs, graphs, maps.

When submitting a thesis, report, or paper to a university for examination, copyrighted figures (e.g., photos, figures, diagrams, etc.) tables, or similar can not be used in the report without permission from the copyright owner (this is however a general statement, no publication should contain copyrighted figures without proper permission). This is due to both legal and ethical reasons. Since almost all material is under some type of copyright (if not explicitly under public license), this applies to most photos, graphics, illustrations, tables, etc. found in print or digital sources. There are two problems that can occur,  (1) if material is used without the appropriate citation, it is regarded as plagiarism, and (2) if a copyrighted work is used (i.e. a figure, table, etc. is copied and placed in your work) without permission, it is (most certainly) a copyright violation. The latter can occur even if the correct citation is used and vice versa.

It is the responsibility of the author (e.g., the student) of a paper/report/thesis to ensure that all necessary permissions have been obtained and/or the appropriate credits are given in the text before the paper/report/thesis is submitted for examination.

In general there should be an indication on whether a work is copyrighted or not. If no copyright is indicated on a work, threat the work as copyrighted. Do not assume that the work is under public domain if it is not formally and clearly stated that it is. Navigating copyright and needed permission can be difficult and you need to take precaution, see this APA guide on how to find the appropriate permission needed. In other words, you cannot use the previously published form (i.e. scan a figure or table from a book, download it from the Internet or in any other way reproduce) and use it in your work.

There is no need to make a reference to your own original work. That is figures/images/photos or other original artwork created by the author of the report/paper should not be in the reference list.

If you are looking for how to cite screenshots, please refer to this document: How to cite screenshots.


How to cite figures from other sources

These guidelines are loosely based on the following sources:

ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct by ACM
Copyright Permissions: Tips for Authors by Wiley
Best practices for attribution by Creative Commons
Navigating Copyright for Reproduced Images by Chelsea Lee (APA Style)

If you want to use a figure or table from another source, there are a couple of options to consider – redraw, permission or public domain.

What is the most important things to understand (i.e., Start here!)

Summarized the idea is that (1) a credit is given in the figure text, (2) a text describes the circumstances, and (3) a reference is put in the reference list.

Here are examples on how to deal with the most common situations (detailed instructions below):

A redrawn figure of an original work:
Ordinary reference with page number, a reference should be put in the reference list.
e.g. (Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23) or [3, p. 23]

A redrawn figure of an original work that has been somehow altered or adapted:
Add the text "Based on" to the ordinary reference with page number, a reference should be put in the reference list.
e.g. (Based on Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23) or (Based on Mejtoft [3, p. 23])

Permission to reproduce an original work has been granted:
Add the type of graphics and the text "Reprinted with permission" to the ordinary reference with page number, a reference should be put in the reference list.
e.g. (Figure by Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23, reprinted with permission) or (Figure by Mejtoft [3, p. 23], reprinted with permission)

Original work that is public domain:
Add the type of graphics, the license type, and the text "distributed under a <license type>" to the ordinary reference with page number, a reference should be put in the reference list.
e.g. (Figure by Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License) or (Figure by Mejtoft [3, p. 23], distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License)

1. Redraw. Redrawn figures do not require copyright permission, nor new figures based on published data. However, the original sources need to be acknowledged!

In this case you redraw the figure or table with the same information (it must not and should not be identical, since it is regarded as a copy) the appropriate reference to the original source should be given. The reference should be difference based on whether the redrawn figure is “copy” with the same information or if the redrawn figure is somehow altered. Altered in this case is removed or added information or changes made to the figure or table (cf. Figure 1 and Figure 2).

If the redrawn figure or table is a fairly equal “copy” of the original (i.e. there are no larger alteration that changes how the figure is perceived by the reader, i.e. no added or removed information), the credit should be given to the author(s) of the original work. Hence, the appropriate credit is an ordinary reference with page number, i.e., [3, p. 23] or (Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23). If no page number can be found, e.g., a figure from a web page, leave this information out. This can be seen in Figure 1 and Figure 3 below.

If the redrawn figure or table is somehow altered from the original, i.e. it is both based on the original source and contains your original work, it is better to give credit as “Based on [3, p. 5]” or “Based on Mejtoft (2008, p. 5)” (also e.g., “adapted from” and “derivative of” can be used to describe that the figure have been somehow altered). In this case both the author or the original work is credited for being the inspiration, as well as the original author not being credited (or miscredited) for your alterations or your added information. This can be seen in Figure 2 and Figure 4 below where adaptions have been made to the original. It should be noted that the first version is also an adaption, however, very similar to the original idea.

(Based on <reference>)

Example:
(Based on Mejtoft, 2008, p. 23)
(Based on Mejtoft [3, p. 23]) or (Based on [3, p. 23])

Reference:
Mejtoft, T. (2008). Institutional arrangements and competitive posture: Effects of company structures in the commercial printing industry. Doctoral Dissertation, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.

Below are examples from using (name, year) and [numerical] systems of a redrawn version of the Design Thinking process adapted by Nielsen Norman Group.

Example using (Name, year) system:

Gibbons, S. (2016). Design thinking 101. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved February 15, 2019, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Figure 1. Design thinking process (Gibbons, 2000).
Figure 2. Design thinking process where context and form meets (Based on Gibbons, 2000).

Example using [numerical system]:

[3] Gibbons, S. (2016). Design thinking 101. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved February 15, 2019, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Figure 3. Design thinking process [3].
Figure 4. Design thinking process where context and form meets (Based on [3]).

2. Permission. If you want to reproduce (using the previously published form, i.e., the copyrighted material) or make an adaption (changing the previously published form) of a figure or table, permission from the copyright holder is needed.

Getting permission to reproduce figures and tables is in many cases not a big problem, but may take some time. Make contact with the owner of the original work and start this process early. Note that in the case of published material (e.g., journal articles, conference proceedings, books etc.), it is most often not the author(s) that are the legal copyright holders, but rather the publisher. The best way to start might be to make contact with the publisher, they should know who is the rightful copyright owner of a specific work.

If you have been grated permission to use the graphics, an ordinary reference to the original source with page number, e.g., [3, p. 23] or (Mejtoft, 2018, p. 23), should be used. If no page number can be found, e.g., a figure from a web page or similar, leave this information out. To show that you have permission, a statement should be given in e.g., the figure text according to the structure below (examples in Figure 5 and Figure 6).

(<Graphics/Photograph/Figure…> by <reference>, reprinted with permission.)

Example:
(Photograph by Mejtoft, 2018, reprinted with permission)
(Photograph by Mejtoft [3], reprinted with permission)

Reference:
Mejtoft, T. (2018). Mid-Autumn Festival. Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://www.mejtoft.se/thomas/2018/09/mid-autumn-festival/

If there are other demands from the license owner, those text should be added.

Example:

Figure 5. Mid-Autumn Festival in Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.
(Photograph by Mejtoft, 2018, reprinted with permission)
Figure 6. Marina Bay, Singapore.
(Photograph by [5], reprinted with permission)

In the case of permission to use copyrighted work in your report, a copy of the copyright permission (document, email, or other source) should both be retained by the author (probably you) and be sent to the editor or examiner when a paper or thesis is submitted for publication or examination.

3. Public domain. One of the best options is to find and use graphics that are in the public domain or have licenses for further use (e.g., Creative commons). One example is Wikimedia Commons that has a lot of graphics under public licenses. However, don’t forget to read through the license to understand what you are allowed to do or not to do with the graphics!

When using graphics that are in the public domain or under a creative commons license, citing the source of the graphics should be done in the report either according to the rules of the license (if there are any demands) or as the following example:

(<Graphics/Photograph/Figure…> by <reference>, distributed under a <license type>)

Example:
(Photograph by Mejtoft, 2018, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License)
(Photograph by Mejtoft [4], distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License)

Below are two examples from reusing the following media:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acrobatic_Dragonfly.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.png

Photo of a acrobatic dragonfly.
Figure 7. Dragonfly.
(Photograph by Ronnie, 2016, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License)
Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Spanning from basic needs, such as physiological, safety, and belonging, to esteem and self-actualization.
Figure 8. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943).
(Graphics by Finkelstein, 2006, distributed under GFDL)

As can be seen in Figure 8, the reference to the original source should be given if the graphics is an adaption form a original work. In this case a reference to Maslow (1943) is necessary since this is the source of the Hierarchy of needs.

References:

Ronnie, A. K. (2016). Acrobatic Dragonfly at National Botanical Garden of Bangladesh. Retrieved Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acrobatic_Dragonfly.jpg

Finkelstein, J. (2006). Diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Retrieved Retrieved May 9, 2022, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs.png

Links (see Figure 3 and Figure 4) should be included if used on a website or an interactive version of a report is created, otherwise static text is preferred.

Even though there are cases were it is stated that no credit is needed, credit should always be given when public domain works are used in publications or on websites to give credit to the original author/designer/creator! In other words, use one of the examples above.


Licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 Creative Commons license.

(First published by Thomas Mejtoft: 2019-02-14; Revised: 2022-05-09; Last updated: 2022-05-09)