Whose image is it anyway?
Submitted by C Parmenter on 06 February, 2014.
Today I want to, no, I need to talk about a matter that I’m sure we all encounter. I’m not quite sure what exactly I should call it. Perhaps theft is too strong, maybe it is better described as copyright infringement or unauthorised usage of images and/or data. I am of course talking about the use of images in publications without the knowledge and consent of the instrument operator.
As some microscope operators/users frequently provide a service for other researchers who want to access specialist equipment, there is a question of who the images or data belong to once the work is completed.
Obviously, the specimen being analysed belongs to the person who brought it and if that same person operates the microscope they can claim the resulting work as wholly theirs, however, they should acknowledge the centre/unit where the work where the instrument resides. If the microscope is operated by someone else, it would be courteous, and I’m arguing necessary, to acknowledge the operator and their affiliation, in the same way it is customary to detail the manufacturer and model of the instrument used.
I hope you agree, all of this sounds fine, but here is the problem – some individuals seem to overlook the operator once the data/images have been captured and analysis is complete. The law is clear on this: from the moment an image or photograph is created it is copyrighted, without the need to display the copyright symbol. So, if this is clear and we are all civilised people, why is there still a problem? What are the reasons that I need to ask this question in a blog? Surely it is natural to thank the unit/group and operator or team who helped and facilitated part of your research when the work is published?
Here are some of the reasons that I have heard for not acknowledging.
1. Simple forgetfulness – Often the gap between data acquisition and writing up can be considerable, plus the results may be ‘written-up’ by a group leader or PDRA, who was not directly involved in the data capture and may assume that the student did the work unaided.
2. The assumption that ‘there is no need to acknowledge as we belong to the same institution’. This is something I have heard recently, however, it is not helpful to demonstrate the collaboration different groups/units at the institution or demonstrate the ‘outputs’ of each of the contributors. This is an important point, as increasingly centres/units are being asked to demonstrate how they have aided researchers, schools and departments to support their continued existence. This is impossible if they are not acknowledged due to this oversight!
Okay, these two points are essentially down to people ‘naively’ or innocently omitting acknowledgements, but what are more deliberate reasons?
3. "I’ve paid, so the data are mine!" Access charges are a common issue that many researchers have to face and factor into funding applications. The centres themselves often perform a full economic costing and some are encouraged to generate enough income to sustain service contracts and consumables. The fact that you pay for instrument access or time could lead you to believe that you are buying the images/data and therefore own them and can use them as you want, including publishing. Now I don’t know how clear this is for microscopes and microscopists in an institution as I’d imagine that use within the institution is okay without copyright issues.
However, let’s consider what happens if you have a portrait at photography studio and you buy copies. The original images (on the camera) belong and are copyrighted to the photographer who took the photos, unless they specifically transfer the copyright to you when you buy. If you want to reproduce the images or further copies, then you need to pay for the privilege. So, why isn’t this the case for images/data from microscopes? Should it be? This whole issue raises a further interesting point – if you submit a paper containing images/micrographs to a journal then typically you agree to give the copyright for them to the publisher. But, what if the images were never yours to give in the first place, and how would you decide to whom they belong in the first place? If you fail to mention that you didn’t take the images yourself, can you actually give permission for use of the images?
Before writing this article I researched it using various sources. One area that experiences similar issues is the internet and bloggers, who use images without permission. The question was asked that ‘If I use an image without permission on my blog, then do I infringe the copyright?’ Well, the answer depends on the image and it’s copyright. If the image is copyrighted, and you use it without permission, then in theory they can sue. I came across an article on just this subject and the damage costs are eye-watering, which is why this post intentionally has no images, and the header is a black box. I then discovered information that made reference to the fact that copyright infringement is allowed, under what is termed ‘fair use’ for scholarly or research use. I believe this might be why this issue of unauthorised use hasn’t been solved before; use in scholarly and research use exempts our data from the same legal requirements that a photographer could claim.
So, if this is the case, what can we do about it? It has to be a matter of education over ethics and behaviour in publication. Some people don’t feel they should or need to acknowledge technical staff, perhaps through years of this being the trend? However, this is simply not right. Institutions, companies and publishers need to be clear about what is acceptable with regard to acknowledgement and there are some nice examples are from the International Journal of Clinical Practice and the MIT Library, who have a test on what constitutes ‘fair use’, as does the University of Minnesota.
Determined to get to the bottom of this, I asked around at work and was referred to our (University of Nottingham) code of conduct and ethics, which states in section 5, that:
• A publication must contain appropriate reference to the contributions made by all participants in the relevant research;
• Any person who has not participated in a substantial way in conceiving, executing or interpreting at least part of the relevant research is not to be included as an
author of a publication derived from that research;
• In addition to meeting the requirements of the points above, an author must ensure that the work of research students, research assistants, research officers, and technical officers is recognised in all publications derived from research to which they have made a contribution.
I was pleased to find that this existed and that the University is clear on this, although how many people actually know about it I’m not sure. For now there are some simple things we can all do:
• Watermark your images – if you watermark the images and supply these rather than the original, then people who want to publish will need to come back to you to request the original and you will know they intend to publish it in some way (poster, presentation, journal).
• Draw up an agreement, which clearly states the need to acknowledge everyone (either as co-author or a thank you at the end of the paper). Then make sure that students and supervisors have read and agreed to it before doing the work.
• Find out if your place of work has an ethics and conduct policy and use that to enforce your rights if others question what you are doing about this issue.
I hope that you found this interesting and informative; I’m not legally trained so I may be wrong about some points, but the fact remains we have to stop the use of images and data from microscopes without acknowledgment, for all our sakes!
What do you think? Do you agree, or have something to say about this? Please let me know.