Research images in science communication

Research images are a great way to disseminate your research. They can also be a way of engaging with the public, rather than just drip-feeding information to them.

The MAPS faculty features research images on its website and through social media, and is building an online photo archive which we invite you to contribute to.

The unchallenged world leader in promoting research images to the public is NASA. By US law, their images are all released into the public domain. This means they get widely re-used, adapted and remixed by a wide range of people – from the news media to artists. It is in large part thanks to this lack of copyright protection that NASA images have become so embedded in popular culture.


We therefore highly recommend that you make your images available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence, unless the copyright policy of a facility or a research collaborator forbids it. Creative Commons Attribution licences are the standard terms used by most open access journals and a growing number of research institutions. They allow re-use by anyone, for almost any purpose, providing they give full credit. It is also a condition for use in Wikipedia and related projects - giving you access to the biggest reference site on the internet.

We understand that you may have concerns about making research images available on such liberal terms, in particular since they allow for commercial, profit-making uses. There is an understandable temptation to try to restrict commercial use of images, or to ration access in order to avoid institutional/reputational damage.


These restrictions are a guaranteed way to reduce the public impact of your work, as many of the most effective ways of disseminating images are commercial – newspapers, websites, social media, YouTube and books.

It is not enough to put a message asking journalists to contact you for permission. Picture editors need clear, unambiguous conditions, and they will generally not bother contacting you for permission. They will just move on to something else, losing you an opportunity to increase the impact of your research.

We give the final word to Ray Villard, head of news at NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute, on the subject of people who try to restrict the reuse of research images:

“Their restrictions are antithetical to public communication and engagement in this social media age. It is guaranteed to kill any publicity for their research. Reporters and bloggers are on deadlines and will not waste time to address copyright issues. Reporters will simply find free sources - like NASA.”


Useful resources elsewhere on the web

Page last modified on 08 may 13 12:10