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 the University for examination copyrighted figures (e.g. photos, figures, diagrams, etc.) or tables can not be used in the report without permission. This is due to both legal and ethical reasons. Since almost all material is under copyright (if not explicit under public license), this applies to most photos, graphics, illustrations, tables etc. If material is used without the appropriate citation it is plagiarism. If a copyrighted work is used (i.e. a figure, table, etc. is copied and placed in your work), it is a copyright violation even if the correct citation is used.

It is the author’s responsibility to ensure that all necessary permissions are obtained and/or the appropriate credits are given in the text before the 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, treat 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.

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.

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

In this case you redraw the figure or table with the correct information and give the appropriate reference to the original source.

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), the appropriate credit is an ordinary reference. i.e. [3] or (Mejtoft, 2008). This can be seen in Figure 1.

If the redrawn figure or table is somehow altered from the original, i.e. it is both based on the proginal source and your original work, it is better to give credit as “Based on [3]” or “Based on Mejtoft (2008)”. In this case both the original author is credited and this author do not get get credit (or miscredit) for your added information. This can be seen in Figure 2.

Below is an example from a figure from the following reference:

Nielsen, J. (2000). Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved February 15, 2019, from

Figure 1. Usability problems found when testing (Nielsen, 2000).
Figure 2. Number of tests used (Based on Nielsen, 2000).

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 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 authors that are the copyright holders, but rather the publisher. The best way 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, e.g. [3] or (Mejtoft, 2018), should be used. In this case, 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 supervisor and examiner before the thesis is submitted.

3. Public domain. One of the best options is to 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!

When using graphics that are in the public domain or under the 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: 

<Graphics/Photograph/…> by <creator> distributed under a <license type>


Photo by Thomas Mejtoft distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Licence

Below are two examples from the following:

Figure 3. A nice flower. (Photograph by Uoaei1 distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 License)

Figure 4. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1943). (Graphics by J. Finkelstein distributed under GFDL)

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

(First published by Thomas Mejtoft: 2019-02-14; Last updated: 2020-11-16)