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Images For Research Papers

As a Lake Forest College student, you have access to hundreds of online databases and journals having images of a much higher resolution than many of the search engines on the Internet. These journals also have reliable documentation as to the source and subject of the image, and so are easier to cite correctly.
You can link to these images without violating copyright laws, but if you save a copy of an image, you will have to determine if copyright permission needs to be requested. Be sure to cite the source as you would any quotation.

Find Images

Be sure to credit the source of the image, and be sure that you will not be violating copyright by publicly reproducing or displaying the image; ask permission, and document that permission was granted.

Wikimedia Commons Images are contributed by photographers who have the authority and desire to offer copyright-free images. Give a link to the image in Wikimedia Commons and, when available, the name of the creator of the item.

PNAS Online (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has high resolution images if you click on the Full Text or Figures Only links to an article. Do not click on the Full Text (PDF) link. PNAS has images of higher quality and greater credibility than any you will typically find via the Internet search engines. For example, see figure 1.  Permission is granted to use the images for educational purposes.

Scientific American and Nature have some beautiful images for posters; permission to use images can be requested.

USGS Multimedia Gallery

Science has a wealth of high resolution images. You must request permission to use these images for display purposes, for example, for Student Symposium.

Google’s Advanced Image Search: For Size, select Large. For Usage Rights, select “free to use.”
Use Google’s main image search to find the origin of an online image or a larger version:
In the search box, click the camera icon to search by an image’s URL or to upload an image from your computer.

Wildflower Center

CalPhotos:Animals (part of the Berkeley Digital Library Project)

Prints and Photographs Reading Room (Library of Congress) does not have scientific images at this time, but included in this digital collection are images from the early days of the conservation movement. Most are free to use for educational purposes.

Citing Images

Most images in professional journal articles are created by the author of the article.

Here are two examples of journal articles that have cited images created by someone other than the author of the article:

The figure at the bottom of page 423 (page 6 of the PDF) of a review article in the journal Genes & Development has a lengthy caption that ends with “Reproduced from Thakur et al. (2008a) with permission (originally published in Nature,” At the top of page 432 is the complete reference for Thakur.

An article from the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution has a figure that reproduces several images. At the end of the caption, credit is given: “Reproduced with permission from (a) H.E. Hoekstra and (c) J.L. Feder.” Because APA style is not used, the references for Hoekstra and Feder are not found alphabetically in the references, but they are included (see reference numbers 25 and 68 on the last page of the article).


Here are two examples of citing images found on the Internet and used in a research paper or poster:

The caption of this image includes a footnote used to cite the image. The footnote is below the image here.


Figure 1. B. pertussis by
J. L. Carson, 2003. Used
with permission. ¹


¹ From “Three genomes and whooping cough,” by E. R. Winstead, 2003, Genome News Network . Copyright 2000 - 2004 by the J. Craig Venter Institute.  Reproduced with permission of the photographer. Available at whooping_cough.php

Shown directly below is a citation for the image if you include it in your References, but APA style does not require you to do so.

Give the address of the page on which the image appeared rather than the address of the image to assist retrieval of the image at a later date.

This example includes the citation in the caption; no footnote is used. This image’s citation has the Internet address to the page where the image is published, which includes additional information about the image. However, Internet addresses can change, and content can be removed, so it is best to include a date of retrieval in your references. This and other images were scheduled for removal in January 2012 due to budget cuts.

Figure 2. “Water lily [Nymphaeaceae] blooming in Saint Petersburg’s Botanical Gardens, September 2005,” by A. L. Olsen. Retrieved 2011 from the NBII (National Biological Information Infrastructure) Digital Image Library website, maintained by the Center for Biological Informatics of the US Geological Survey,


Here is an example similar to the one above, but still available online:

Figure 3. “A leopard frog in the wetlands,” by Rachel Harrington. Retrieved from the USGS Multimedia Gallery website,



Here are two examples of citing images found on the Internet and reproduced on a website, PowerPoint presentation, or online journal:
This image is hyperlinked to the article in which it appeared. This method would be appropriate for student work that is published on the Web.

Figure 5. The development of male antennae of the wild silkmoth.
Used with permission, © 2005 PNAS.

Accurate citation of sources is a good way to avoid plagiarsm and its consequences.


Copyright is different than plagiarism, but both involve academic honesty.

If you want to reproduce the image in a research paper, PowerPoint presentation, or a poster, find the copyright instructions for the individual journal and/or database (or website).

Frequently you can just do a search for the word copyright or the word permission, using the Find (Ctrl+F) command.

Some journals will give immediate permission to use the images for educational purposes, provided the source is credited properly.
Others require you to contact the author and/or publisher; generally contact information is provided, and replies to copyright requests are speedy.

For example, the photographers whose images appear at CalPhotos Fauna and CalPhotos Flora, indicate that anyone may use any of their thumbnail-sized images for academic purposes without prior permission, but to use the high resolution photo (e.g. for a poster) the photographer must be contacted. Click details to find the photographer’s contact information.

Read Using the Photos in CalPhotos for a concise explanation of copyright law and using online images, which would apply to other sites’ images as well.

Manuscripts express data collected from months or years of careful experimentation. However, raw data or narratives alone don’t make good journal articles. Data visualization tools and free drawing software enable scientists to explain their scientific story. By using tools to perfect scientific illustration, your manuscript can grab reviewers’ attention. More importantly, it will help your readers understand data quickly, increasing the likelihood of citing and sharing your research paper.

Why Image Quality Matters

Journals have strict guidelines regarding figure/image quality (e.g. “dots per inch”/DPI or number of pixels per image). Editors and their staff will turn down manuscripts prior to review if the images are of insufficient quality. Furthermore, poor figure quality can leave a bad impression on readers and reviewers. So, when editing and creating scientific images, be sure to use scientific illustration software or drawing tools to make your data clear and understandable!

Tables can help communicate data quickly to readers, who are often short on time. For this reason, when you have a well-designed table, your paper can have a far greater impact. For this reason, your tables should have clear and descriptive titles, well-defined headings, aligned data entries in each cell, and clearly defined units for all data entries. Meanwhile, when designing figures, there are many tools available to researchers to create publication-ready images.

Uses and Limitations of Common Tools

There is a myriad of tools available for scientists. Picking which one to work with depends on your computer literacy, budget, and desired outcomes.

R is a free statistics computing program that also facilitates graphics development. It works on a variety of operating systems. Furthermore, the default design choices for image rendering were made to generate publication-quality plots with ease. While it is free, it is not as user-friendly as subscription services, such as Prism, which allows for both data analysis and figure development.

ImageJ is a freely available software developed by the National Institutes of Health. In short, it is an image-processing program that allows users to edit, analyze, process, save, print, modify colors, and quantitate images. One of the more exciting features is its ability to generate stacks (a series of images) from videos or convert photos into videos. This is helpful for live cell imaging.

Inkspace is a quality vector graphics editor that is open sourced and provides flexible drawing tools. It has broad file format compatibility and a powerful text tool.

GIMP is a free image manipulation program that can be combined with plugins to enhance features. It requires greater computer literacy than most other image formatting tools.

Cytospace is an open source network for complex network analysis that helps users integrate, analyze, and visualize data. While it is free to use, it is not as user-friendly as Ingenuity Pathway Analysis, which allows for pathways to be designed and rendered artistically with great ease (for a fee, of course).

ImageMagick is another tool that can be used to read and write images in many commonly used formats (e.g., PNG, JPEG, FIG, TIFF, PDF, etc). For this reason, it can modify images in nearly any manner. It allows users to composite images, animate, manage color, decorate, draw, and delineate image features (e.g., edges of colors). Furthermore, it is compatible with multiple coding languages.


  • While creating figures can be a fun process, it’s important to always do it correctly. First, check the required format for images prior to submitting. If you have to convert the image file, check to ensure that your DPI is still at least 300.
  • Once ready to submit, carefully review figures for errors prior to publishing. One method of doing this is to print your figures in color and review them manually. This will help you spot oddities that may have otherwise been missed by an electronic review.
  • When modifying your images for publication, never manipulate your images in a manner that is fraudulent. Western blots are often the most suspicious images available that will carefully be scrutinized by your reviewers.
  • Finally, while a lot of data is helpful to have, be sure to reduce the presence of “chartjunk” – the unnecessary visual elements that distract the reader from what really matters…your data!

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