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I have been attempting to use published, peer-reviewed journal articles as the primary references for answers here. Frequently, it would be helpful to reproduce a figure published in one of these articles. For instance, just now while writing this answer, I wanted a picture of the phase response curve for light. This is available as a figure in a review article I was already citing, and that review is freely available from PubMed Central. However, I am uncertain about whether I am able to reproduce it without permission. As such, I settled for a less optimal figure pulled from Wikipedia, because I am fairly certain that their copyright allows this.

  • Can I (legally!) pull a figure from published material and reproduce it here, assuming I provide a link and full citation of the source?
  • Does it matter whether the work I am pulling from is itself freely available?
  • The closest thing I could find on meta.SE had an answer saying basically “you figure it out” and a link in comments to this. This must come up all the time, though, and I still think it would make sense for the community to try to get a sense of how we should think about the common scenario. I have generally assumed that brief quotes do fall within fair use, but figures I’m really uncertain about. – Susan Apr 18 '15 at 15:05
  • I know that this is only opinion, but the spirit of the law is to avoid appropriating someone's work and trying to pass it off as one's own. Figures are essentially no different than words; they both intend to convey information, one following rules of grammar, the other, mathematics. It was published in order to contribute to the sum of knowledge, as opposed to privately funded research. Once launched into the ether, attribution should be sufficient for information published in both words, symbols and photographs (SEM, histology, etc.) that are not intellectual property. – anongoodnurse Apr 18 '15 at 22:34
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    Thanks, @anongoodnurse. My question arose in part because I know that in published works, quotes from others are frequently used under fair use, but if one wants to reprint figures they must be (or are usually anyway) "reprinted with permission." Maybe that's only in settings where there is a publisher doing the reprinting and thereby making money. Your explanation certainly makes sense. – Susan Apr 18 '15 at 22:43
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Legally, you can't know if something is fair use unless it goes to court. Not always even then.

Different sites / publications have different rules for what they consider appropriate, usually based on some combination of length and ratio to original text. These exist both to provide some protection against claims of copyright infringement and also claims of plagiarism.

Realistically, the legality of quoting isn't something you should worry about. Being thorough about your citations (at minimum, noting the author and publication you're pulling from) goes a long way toward making the original authors feel respected, and that's what we should strive for first.

Beyond that, try to avoid making your entire answer a "ransom letter" patchwork of quotes from various sources, even if you are citing them properly. If you can't understand the sources you're quoting well enough to explain them in your own words, relate them to the question you're answering, and address any ambiguities that others might point out in comments, you're not really helping.

Oh... And don't ever fail to indicate when you're quoting. I've seen folks try to be clever and past together bits and pieces of various articles, linking to the sources but not indicating which portions were lifted - that's not only disrespectful to the original authors, it disrespects your readers here. It's plagiarism plain and simple, and we must not tolerate it.

  • Thank you, this is helpful. Just to clarify, I intended to ask more about pulling figures (which I tend to be interested in for purposes similar to the usage in the answer I linked to) rather than quotes because I'm fairly comfortable with the guidelines for fair use in quoting. – Susan Apr 18 '15 at 17:25
  • Same thing - don't make it the meat of your post, always attribute it to the author. – Shog9 Apr 18 '15 at 17:56
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There is an article I found on the NYU website in the library section. It suggests that fair use is acceptable when doing research and teaching. There are a couple items that I think would allow use of an excerpted image for an answer here:

"Transformative" uses are also favored as fair uses. A use is considered to be transformative when it

results in the creation of an entirely new work (as opposed to an adaptation of an existing work, which is merely derivative and not transformative);

or uses the original work for a new and different purpose.

You are creating an interpretation or original answer and referencing the image in support. That makes it a new work, which I think would qualify.

Also:

In general, published works and factual, non-fiction works are more likely to qualify for fair use.

As well as:

Weighing in favor of fair use:

Posting a 30-second clip of a film online for students to critique
Distributing a chapter of a text for class discussion

So, unless the image is the key critical piece of the paper and without that picture the entire paper would crumble, I think that linking the image would be acceptable fair use.

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