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Quotations in a PhD thesis

By Chris J Holland, on 18 May 2018

Recently we were asked about quotations in a PhD thesis which was about to be submitted for posting in Discovery, UCL’s open access repository. The student had included a small number of images from published papers by other authors (third party material).

Very sensibly the student had made an initial attempt to seek permission by contacting the publisher in each case but had received no response and was concerned about what to do next. Was permission essential to include these particular images? Again, a sensible question.

Further investigation showed that one of the source articles had in fact been published under a Creative Commons licence (as it happened, the most generous “CC BY” licence). In that particular case it would be fine to reproduce the image without seeking permission but only if one fulfilled the terms of the CC licence in some reasonable manner.

In our example the student had not realised the significance of the licence so had not initially taken steps to fulfill all its terms, such as identifying the licence and linking back to the Creative Commons website. So, ironically, even though the student was licensed to reuse the image, if they had proceeded without fulfilling the terms, there was the potential for copyright infringement.

Post graduate students will typically have an impressive grasp of detail in their chosen field but not necessarily when it comes to copyright and licensing issues. This example illustrates the importance of having at least a broad awareness of copyright when you are making your work available online and including quotations from third party material. Fortunately in this case the student was wise enough to seek advice on the potential issues.

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