It’s easy to find images. It’s easy to copy and paste images. It’s not so easy to provide appropriate attribution and consider copyright for images. When you choose, use, and cite images (aka figures), consider your purpose and audience, presentation and rights, and the creator(s) and attribution style.
You might choose images for their visual appeal or to communicate important information. You might choose a stylized illustration that relates to broad concepts, or you might use a graph to display specific data. Depending on your purpose, you might want to look for an image online or create your own image. If you create your own new image, you can still use style conventions, but you don’t need to worry about copyright or attribution because you are the creator and, probably, the copyright holder. Think about what purpose the image serves before searching for or creating the right image.
Along with the purpose of the image, consider your audience. Are you presenting ideas to scholars, the general public, or businesses? Does your audience expect a pleasant image that adds a visual counterpoint to text or does the audience expect a statistical representation? Can you find or create an image that will satisfy your audience? What does the audience expect for attribution? For any audience, you should credit the creator(s) and copyright holder but, depending on the audience, you might feature the attribution more or less prominently.
Presentation mode can also play a part in the prominence of your attribution. For example, you can feature your attribution differently on a website than on presentation slides; your attribution would be different for a paper submitted to a scholarly journal than it would be for a discussion post.
For any image, you need to look into your rights to use the image. If you create your own image, you can use it for your purposes, but if you share the image, you’ll need to get permission from anyone who might appear in it. Your institution probably has policies and forms for that permission, like this one from Lethbridge College. If you borrow an image from someone else, copyright law almost always applies (images in the public domain do not fall under copyright restrictions). However, fair dealing gives students and instructors permission to use most images. Even when copyright laws and licenses allow you to use the image, you still need to provide appropriate attribution.
When you think about citing an image, you should think first about the creator(s) of the image. Creators can be illustrators, photographers, authors, artists, and more. You should give credit to the person who invested time and effort to create the image. In the online world, however, creators are not always easy to identify. Consider searching on reliable databases and websites for a better chance of identifying creator(s). If you create your own new image, you won’t need a citation, but if you use your own previously published image, you should cite yourself for the earlier publication. Sometimes the creator and copyright holder are the same, but they can also be different. Your citation should also acknowledge the copyright holder.
Your attribution style will be related to your purpose, audience, and presentation mode. For most academic purposes, use an academic style like APA Style or an appropriate adaptation of APA Style. Formal figure citations in APA Style are mainly designed for papers submitted to scholarly journals; for other purposes, like student assignments or course delivery, the American Psychological Association (2020) “encourage[s] writers, instructors, departments, and academic institutions … to adapt APA Style to fit their needs” (p. 10). At Lethbridge College, the Student Guide to Figure Citations provides adapted guidelines and the Learning Café helps learners navigate those guidelines.