Image attribution in presentations


Do you provide attribution for images in your lectures and presentations? If you don’t, here are some reasons why you should.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Apparently that’s not enough for a citation. 

As a PhD student, I see powerpoint-type presentations regularly – in departmental seminars, in lab meetings, in classes I’m a TA for, and in classes in which I am a student. These presentations typically include beautiful photographic illustrations, usually of wildlife. I’ve noticed recently that whether the presenter is a professor, postdoc, graduate or undergraduate student, the vast majority of the times an image is shown on the screen there is no credit given to the photographer (this and all that follows applies equally to drawings and other illustrations but I’ll use photography as an example here). I see this happen again and again, and it makes me angry. Here’s why.

A good wildlife photograph costs something to produce, including skill, time, and money. It’s increasingly easy to take a decent photo with an iphone or other cell phone camera. But the beautiful wildlife photographs scientists are downloading from the internet to illustrate their presentations are not typically casual iphone snaps. They are more often the result of hours of hard work by a talented photographer who shot hundreds of frames before capturing just the right moment. Their equipment likely cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to purchase. They may have spent more money to get to a remote location to find their subject. Maybe they get paid to do this work, but often they do not.

A good wildlife photograph is rich with data. At a minimum it provides information about the morphology of the organism it depicts, in a much more meaningful way than words alone ever could. But it might show an animal engaged in a specific behaviour, or illustrate some kind of interaction between organisms, or otherwise tell a story about natural history. At the same time, it may provide information about the context in which a behaviour occurs, perhaps showing the abiotic environment of the organism, or other members of its community.

L hesperus pair

Latrodectus hesperus male and female. Photo: Sean McCann (used with permission).
This is an image that I use in every presentation I give about my research. It is beautiful and of technically high quality. It immediately conveys a great deal of information about my study organisms and illustrates several aspects of their natural history that I might want to talk about, including but not limited to their morphology, that they are highly sexually dimorphic, that they build irregular tangle webs, and that males engage in courtship displays on the female’s web. This image was the result of a photography session in the laboratory that lasted most of the day, by a photographer with expensive equipment, who was not paid for his time. He happens to be my partner and scientific collaborator, so I did not have to pay him for the image, and he is happy to let me and other colleagues use the photo to illustrate our science, at no cost, provided we include an appropriate photo credit.

A photographic illustration of my study organism is, to me, a valuable thing. When I use one in a presentation, I think it is worth writing the name of the photographer under the image. It costs me almost nothing, except a bit of room on the slide or on the photograph itself. If done with a bit of care, the photo credit need not distract the viewer. But it gives them the opportunity to take note of the creator of the image, if they are so inclined, and look them up later on. If the photographer is a professional (or even if not) and this leads to a sale, that little photo credit might be worth quite a lot. But that is not the main reason to provide attribution. A photograph is someone else’s work, and in science, when we use someone else’s work, we cite it appropriately.

I do not understand why many scientists don’t make the small effort to include photo credits in their presentations. I have a few non-mutually exclusive hypotheses (if you can think of others, please do let me know):

  1. They are lazy. They can’t be bothered to look up who made the image and write down their name.
  2. They have aesthetic objections to adding photo credits on the grounds that they add “clutter” to slides (this ought to apply to figure citations too, though).
  3. They are unaware of copyright law*, how creative commons image licenses work, and that using other people’s work without attribution is a form of plagiarism. (*Occasionally I see presentations full of non-credited images that slap a “copyright Dr. X” on the bottom of every slide, and I’m not sure whether this constitutes evidence for or against this hypothesis.)
  4. They are aware of the above, but they don’t think a photograph is worth citing.

At this point, I should probably say a bit about copyright and image licenses, in case the first part of hypothesis 3 is correct. If you want to use an image that’s under copyright in a presentation (and unless otherwise indicated, it’s safest to assume any image you find online is under copyright) the best way to avoid infringement is to contact the copyright owner (usually the creator) directly and ask permission. In my experience, they usually say yes, as long as you provide proper attribution. However, the presentations I am talking about are typically for the purpose of education – lectures, class presentations, lab meetings, or departmental seminars. In Canada and the US, it’s probably not copyright infringement to use an image without prior permission if the use is educational (this falls under the “fair dealing exception” in Canadian copyright law and “fair use” in the US, but it’s important to note that not all use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes are necessarily fair use – copyright law is complex). Anyway, if you are using an image without attribution for educational purposes you will not likely be found guilty of copyright infringement, provided it was actually fair use.

With creative commons licensed images (images you find on Wikipedia are typically in this category, or public domain), things are a bit different. These images are under copyright, but depending on the license, they may be used without permission under certain circumstances. They may require that use be non-commercial, or that the image is not altered in any way, and they all have explicit requirements about attribution. Most of the times I’ve seen folks using creative commons images they are violating the terms of the license by not providing proper attribution. Again, you’re very unlikely to be taken to court for such violation in a lecture or lab meeting talk, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. Here’s a nice guide from a Canadian university on how to appropriately cite public domain and creative commons images.

So, in general there are no actual consequences for not abiding by copyright laws when you are using images for educational purposes. There is little risk that the copyright owner will ever see your presentation, let alone take you to court over it. But that’s not really the point.

In writing, when you present ideas that are not your own, you provide attribution with a citation. In presentations, people often include figures that they did not produce themselves, typically from published papers. These are almost invariably accompanied by a citation. It would be wrong (it would be plagiarism) to present someone else’s figure as if it was your own work. An image is a figure too, containing visual, rather than numerical data. It is also wrong (it is also plagiarism) to present someone else’s image as if it was your own work. And if you are giving a talk, I would argue that everything in it should be your own work unless otherwise indicated.

Perhaps at this point some readers may be thinking something along the lines of, “well, everyone takes images off the Internet for their presentations and everyone understands that those images are not the work of the presenter – they are just illustrations.” If this is your position, I urge you to reconsider. What makes a data figure worth more than an image, such that the former deserves attribution but the latter does not? Does your institution’s academic honesty policy make exemptions for plagiarism of images because everyone does it? I’m honestly interested in what arguments there might be against providing credit for photographs – I can’t think of any good ones myself.


“Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University building lecture theatre” by Cmglee, licensed under  CC-BY-SA 3.0. I can’t tell from this photo, but I hope that the lecturer has included photo credits on the images shown on screen, thereby setting an example of academic integrity for their students.

If none of the above is a convincing argument that it’s good idea to provide attribution for images in talks, I hope this final argument will be. In my experience, instructors and TAs expect undergraduates to provide attribution for work that is not their own in both writing and presentations. If they do not, it’s considered academic dishonesty, and (at least in theory) has severe consequences. I regularly hear instructors and TAs regularly bemoaning the fact that students do not take plagiarism and academic honesty seriously. Some spend time explicitly setting out the rules for using other people’s work in writing and in presentations (I show my students how to find and properly use creative commons licensed images before they give presentations, and I plan to write a post about how to do this soon), and even then some students apparently do not get the message. But consider the example being set by the instructors and TAs who regularly present slides using images without attribution. How can we expect students to take our messages about plagiarism and attribution seriously if they see that their instructors don’t bother with attribution in their own presentations?

To sum up, if you aren’t already, please provide credit for images (and any figures) you use in your presentations. Here are three good reasons:

  1. The photographer who created the image (or the scientist who created the figure) deserves credit for their work
  2. Not doing so constitutes plagiarism, if not copyright infringement
  3. Doing so sets a good example for students


15 thoughts on “Image attribution in presentations

  1. I gave a talk last week at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As usual, I used a lot of my student’s slides and results. I am a complete stickler for crediting images, ideally from open sources. In this case, the results were fantastic. Ken Nickerson, in the audience noticed I had credited an image (of Dictyostelium macrocysts) to his wife, Ann Nickerson. It was from 1972. She got her Ph.D. with the originator of the field, Ken Raper. The next day I got to meet Ann, to hear stories about the early days, and to get some lyophilized clones from back then. All because my student, Tracy Douglas, had attributed the macrocyst image in the talk properly.

  2. I completely agree, Catherine, and especially with your last point about the example for students. My own practices were once quite sloppy, and are now (I believe) pretty good. But I have one question: how do you feel about a “web-site attribution” rather than a “photographer attribution”? My guess is that you will think that isn’t enough. I frequently use (under fair dealing) photos and illustrations where the original photographer/illustrator is not credited on the hosting website. When an image search doesn’t turn up any other use (in other words, I’m probably not just looking at a photo that site X ripped off from site Y), I will simply attribute it to the website source. Advice to “find another suitable image that IS photographer-credited” works some of the time, but not all of the time. Your thoughts (and be critical, please)?

  3. I guess I’ve been lucky that my study topics are rather easy to take photos. So, I’ve mainly used in presentations photos I’ve taken myself, or my husband or one of the colleagues. Anyway, I always try to mention where the photos come from and/or who is the photographer. My husband takes photos as a hobby so I know how much work it is to get those look good on computer screen. Even if you take digital photos, not to mention film photos.

  4. Stephen, I don’t think providing a link to the website where you found the image is appropriate attribution. I see students do this all the time, and it’s better than nothing I suppose, in that it’s acknowledging that you’re using someone else’s work and pointing to where you found it. But it’s still not good enough (not to mention that nobody has the time to copy down the tiny url on the bottom of your slide to actually look it up later – in practice I think this kind of credit is pretty useless). If I can’t find the person who created the image in order to provide proper attribution, I would not use the image. Usually a google reverse image search or will turn up the original use or at least a page where the photographer is credited.

  5. I was responsible for many years for scientific communication at a large university. Today, there is no such thing as an image without an attribution. Legally, every piece of imagery (or sound or film and video) used anywhere has some type of attribution attached to it. Even if you can’t find an attribution, you are obliged to state where you found the image. There are no personal choices involved as is sometimes suggested by users (“[…] they don’t think a photograph is worth citing”, or another excuse I’ve heard a lot, “they are paid to do this so I don’t have to cite them”).

    Good practice dictates that at a minimum the person using an image or sound or film in a presentation indicates where they found the image and include the name of the person or institution associated with it, after having made a search to the best of their ability. Don’t just assign a “copyright c” and a date – this has no meaning. Do put the name of the creator, the year of creation (that is the year the image was actually made if known) and the source (book, web page, archive, museum, article etc.). You should also include a note if you modified or treated the original image in any way. A link to the CC license is appropriate when indicated by the source you use. All this information can appear in a dedicated credits section at the end of a presentation, or next to the image in the caption, or on a corner of the image.

    However, the intellectual property issues around re-use are not universal and vary widely by country and institution. Universities (which are legally responsible for enormous collections of images whether they realize this or not) are generally terrible about training employees to correctly track and cite sources of images and provide little or no support in the way of appropriate digital platforms for organizing this information. In reality, for the moment, enforcement only happens where there is a problem like the publication of an iconic image without citation. But as automated processing tools become more common, we can expect that enforcement will also be stricter.

    Avoid future problems: give credit where credit is due!

  6. As a hobby photographer myself, I’m definitely pro giving credit.
    The problem I face is your hypothesis 2: it looks really bad aesthetically. Esp. when you try to move to more visually pleasing slides (sort of TED-like) and when you know about design and how distracting text is it becomes a HUGE problem.

    It’s one thing when you describe a species of animals and the process of how they were discovered/observed – I can easily see how the photographer and their work can be fit into the narrative there and how eg. the first photographer to document X is probably an important expert one will want to have heard from. Just like there is no problem to use a table or graph of data and attribute it correctly – “as XY et. al measured in their 1996 paper…” – no problem there at all.

    But it’s a totally different thing when you want to use pictures and graphics as eye catchers or generic symbols to enhance learning. Eg. using some generic picture of stereotypical “men in black” as an eye catcher in a lecture on agent-based simulation, using any generic picture of – you don’t care what species of – ant when talking about ant algorithms, using some depiction of a backpack when talking about hiking, using pictures/graphics of tools when talking about woodworking, etc. When all you want to do is use the image of, say, a hammer to drive home a point and it’s totally irrelevant what kind of hammer it is or who took the pic/drew the graphics – all you need is that hammer (or ship, or book, or car, or telephone, or whatever) as a generic symbol…

    Even when there’s enough space and if there were a visually pleasing way to add the citation you do NOT want this text to be there and distract your students at that moment on that slide.

    So far, I include the citations but they look really bad and are distracting. And as we move away from 2-dozen-bullet-points-death-by-powerpoint-slides toward slides which use more graphics or photos just to illustrate concepts/act as eye catchers/memo tools/make people laugh and therefore remember/learn better the problem is only going to get worse. Any thoughts on that would be really helpful.

  7. ttt, I like the way that Alex Wild suggests adding a photo credit using a black bar at the bottom of the image in this post

    I think this technique provides minumum visual distraction, especially if you’re using an image to fill a slide and then have the black strip at the bottom. My next post is going to be about finding and using images in presentations and I will try to address this issue there.

  8. I find it weird when people put the url in 10 point font on the slide. I don’t understand why taking the effort to (sort of) attribute it, but then doing so in a way that no one in the audience will be able to read.

    In my own talks, I always put the photographer’s name, except when I took the photo. But I don’t explain that logic, so I wonder now if people in the audience think I just forgot to attribute those ones? Perhaps I should add my name, but that feels weird to me for some reason.

    For teaching, I totally agree with the point of setting a good example for students. As I’ve updated materials for Intro Bio, one of the things I’ve made an effort to do is to attribute all photos (either via a reverse google image search, or by finding a new image).

  9. Meg, if I see someone providing proper attribution for some images but not others, I would assume it’s because the non-credited ones are their own work. But I can’t speak for others. For lectures, it might be worth explicitly stating at some point that unless otherwise indicated, images are your own work. That way students won’t have any reason to think you’re being sloppy.

  10. Catherine, thanks for reply to my question about web links. I do (as you suggest) look for an original attributed image using google image search, but I’d have to differ with your empirical claim that “usually” that will turn up an image credit. In my experience that works maybe a third of the time. It’s possible it works better with more common images or better (“artiistically”) photos that are likely to have originated with a “serious” photographer? In the end for me it’s probably going to be case-by-case, with the value of that particular image (vs. other options, which are sometimes few) balanced against my discomfort with providing only a web credit. I recognize that’s not perfect, and some might reasonably argue that it doesn’t matter if the value is life-or-death, you just don’t use a photo you can’t track down attribution for. Fortunately it’s not that common (for most subjects, there are alternative images) and is getting less common over time.

  11. Meghan, I often use either hyperlinks or URLs if necessary. Part of the reason is that, many presentations get shared one way or another after the presentation is done. This kind of full attribution is then critical for people who may be using the slides in the future. An individual may not read it in the minute it’s up on the screen dring your talk, but they should be able to copy it and paste it in their browser once they’ve downloaded it off figshare.

    Stephen, it just might be that if there’s no attribution (or you suspect someone’s using a slide without fair dealing) that you have to accept that you don’t have the right to share that image. In practice doing a search with Google Images and “Labeled for reuse” often turns up attribution information. This is a cultural shift, people generally have been pretty free in using images without attribution, but as questions of license become more important in the academic community I think we need to act as good stewards and role models and behave in the way we would (ideally) expect others to.

  12. I agree that it can sometimes be difficult to find the person to credit when searching for photos online, but I do try to credit and get permission when necessary to use every image I include in presentations. Sometimes this means not using my first choice. Similar to the first commenter, I have also met interesting people via citing their photos or asking permission and they often ask about my research and are excited that their images are being used in this way. Incidentally, no one has ever said no and everyone seemed more grateful than necessary that someone bothered to ask.

  13. @Catherine, the thing with the black bar at the bottom works well for photos that fill the screen. Where it does fall apart is the situation described at the end of my comment above where you – how to describe it? – use images not as photos per se but combine several of them a la clip art.

    Eg. I’m trying to convey some scenario and instead of using text I want to use several images. Let’s see – I’m from a technical field, so a slide might have to show eg. some person in a street with a smartphone, two houses, each with a wireless router and antennas on top and another person in one of these houses using a computer. And then I might talk about how these houses are connected wirelessly rooftop-to-rooftop providing internet to their inhabitants and also internet to smartphone users in the street.

    Or you want to use small images sort of as bullet points. Eg. I made slides for a local animal rescue org where we educate people about pet hamsters. One slide is about “how to keep them well?” – I might want several images: an image of an empty tank next to some text why large tanks are preferable to wire cages, an image of a wheel next to recommended material, some numbers of how big the diameter should be and how many kilometers per night they run, an image of the type of hideout we recommend with some text about size/features etc.

    So far, I’ve ended up drawing or photographing way too many of these things myself because adding attribution for all of them is just not possible. And many clip-art/icon style images from eg. wikimedia do require it.

    Maybe it’s time to actually start budgeting some small amount for these things in our projects and just buy them from a stock photo/stock image agency and be done with it. Because the free stuff that needs attribution simply does not work in these situations.

    For big photos I totally agree with you. But the small stuff is really killing me….

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