Publication ethics explained: What’s the difference between ‘image re-use’ and ‘fabrication?
Re-using an image from an earlier paper is re-publishing something that you, or another author, has previously used in an earlier article. This is possible, but requires permission in some form or another.
Fabrication, on the other hand, is the intentional misrepresentation of research results by fabricating data, such as that reported in a journal article. That is to say, the construction and/or addition of data, observations, or characterisations that never occurred in the gathering of data or running of experiments, including figure creation.
Although both image re-use without permission and fabrication are clear violations of publication ethics, as defined by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) the two are quite different.
Can you re-use images from previously published work (even your own previously published work) in later articles?
Yes, but you must:
- Request permission, if necessary, from previous authors, journals, or publishing companies;
- Include appropriate acknowledgement of permission to reproduce, including in figure captions and your acknowledgements section, and;
- Cite all sources appropriately.
The re-use of images can, and does, happen all the time, and sometimes authors can get caught out inadvertently, perhaps because they simply did not realise that this was an issue. Re-use of your own, previously published images from earlier papers without appropriate permissions and citation is one form of ‘self-plagiarism’.
Who owns the copyright? The right to re-use?
The answer to this question depends on the publishing model.
Many academics are simply unaware that once they’ve written an article, in many cases (depending on the publisher) the copyright of this content, including the figures and tables, belongs to the publisher in the ‘traditional’ subscription journal model.
In open access (OA) publishing ownership is slightly different, as either the author or the publisher retains ownership over content via a so-called Creative Commons (CC) license. These vary and include:
- Attribution (BY), where licensees may copy, distribute, display and perform the work and make derivative works based on it only if they give the author or licensor credit (attribution);
- Share-alike (SA), where licensees may distribute derivative works only under a license identical ("not more restrictive") to the license that governs the original work;
- Non-commercial (NC), where licensees may copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and make derivative works based on it for only non-commercial purposes, and;
- Non-derivative (ND), where licensees may copy and distribute exact copies of the work.
Although the last two of these CC license types are most common in academic publishing, the key takeaway here is that somebody always has to be cited, whether it’s you or another team of researchers. Any content, in your own papers or those of others, must be sourced correctly, cited correctly, when re-used in later work. This is re-use.
How do I avoid plagiarism?
Avoid plagiarism in your academic work: Cite, cite, and cite your sources. If in doubt: Cite.
Plagiarism is the general term used to apply to the re-use of text, images, or figures from previously published work without appropriate attribution. Sadly, many academics remain unaware of this issue in a broad context and further education is clearly needed, as plagiarism of text from earlier work in English is one of the most common issues facing non-native speaking authors.
Journals and publishing companies are well aware of this; this is why manuscripts, once submitted to journals, are often evaluated with plagiarism checking software to ensure that all text has been appropriately attributed and cited before they are sent off for further peer-review. We offer plagiarism checking as a single service or as part of our Premium package. Visit for more details.
Data (and figure) fabrication
Fabrication refers to the invention of research findings. Be aware as an author, reader, and potential peer reviewer of some possible situations where fabrication may occur:
- Manipulating images to give a more flatttering view of results;
- Removing outliers or results that don’t fit with the hypothesis or question being addressed;
- Changing, adding, or omitting data points, and;
- The complete re-creation of data from situations where re-checking would be problematic or impossible (e.g., ecological or geographic surveys).
Fabrication implies deliberate purpose: To create something out of nothing, perhaps data, a figure or graph that supports a particular hypothesis or argument and thereby to give an article more weight. To make a piece of work much more significant. This is deeply unethical and, if proven via journal or research institution-led investigation, may lead to serious consequences. Authors shown to have fabricated data in their research articles can expect to be sanctioned: Banned from submitting their work to journals or publishing companies in the future, having their papers corrected and/or retracted completely, even losing their jobs.
Charlesworth Knowledge research and publishing ethics education
Charlesworth is a member of COPE which means we comply with their ethical guidelines. We address publication ethics in our education programs, workshops, and training courses. If you, or your team, are confused about these issues then why not book one of our workshops via your institution? Click here for more information.
We know that this is one of the most common issues facing non-native authors and so offer plagiarism checks as part of our editing packages. Click here for more information.
Did you know that we run free monthly webinars that cover a range of issues, including publication ethics? Click here to listen to a recording.
Our academic writing and publishing training courses, online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you navigate academic writing and publishing, and maximise your potential as a researcher.
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