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Using existing works in academic research and writing

This page focuses on copyright issues that come up when academic researchers and writers want to use or copy from existing works.

Copyright Information Services staff members can help with these issues. Contact us with questions, or for training.

During research

Researchers often want to copy existing works for their own personal reading or study, or to collect existing works (or excerpts from them) for personal or computational analysis. Researchers can sometimes do this without permission from the copyright owner - if they think what they’re doing fits inside fair use

Sometimes researchers want to use existing materials that are subject to a subscription contract or terms of use - such as datasets from a campus subscription, or data on a website with terms of use. Terms of use can limit how materials may be used, even when the use may otherwise be permitted by copyright law.

For public resources with terms of use, or personal subscriptions, researchers may have to decide on their own if the terms allow the kind of research they want to do. Libraries subscriptions do sometimes allow for computational analysis or other research use - but they rarely allow further public sharing.

Copyright and research specialists in the Libraries can help understand details of reusing existing works for research, and help get specific permissions for use of Libraries subscription resources. Contact copyinfo@umn.edu with questions.

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Making new works

Researchers often want to quote from existing works in new works, or make a derivative work based on existing work - such as adapting a figure from an existing paper to update a conceptual model. Occasionally, a researcher may want to incorporate a whole existing work into a new work - such as combining and updating published articles into a new edited book. Academic ethics requires such uses to be cited or credited, but copyright is a separate issue when reusing existing work.

These uses may sometimes be allowed without direct permission from the copyright owner - if they fit inside fair use. However, sometimes what the law allows isn’t the most important issue.

Publishers, conference organizers, and other organizations may have policies or rules for how researchers may reuse existing works in new works that they publish or host. Online services also have policies and automated tools that can affect reuse. For example, a table of purely factual data may not even have a copyright, but most academic publishers would require permission to reproduce it in a new journal article. And playing a musical clip at an academic conference in order to discuss something about the clip might be allowed under fair use - but a recording of the conference presentation might get taken down from YouTube. (Getting taken down from YouTube doesn't mean the use is infringing; it just means someone has complained, or automated systems have identified the music as matching something someone claims to own. Often, takedowns are unfounded.)

The Libraries can help get permission for republication when required by law or by a publisher policy. We can’t always help when materials get taken down from a commercial website, but we can sometimes offer some assistance there, too - contact copyinfo@umn.edu

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Dissertations, theses, and other student work

Student authors in some disciplines may plan to include previously published articles as chapters in a dissertation or thesis. Many publishers have policies (written or unwritten) that allow dissertation re-use, but some do not grant permission for that, or grant complicated permissions. Retaining rights or checking policies before publication can help student authors avoid problems completing their degree.

It's also common for a dissertation or thesis to include some quotes from other published works, or copies of figures from other academic publications. In some disciplines, authors may even include art images or movie or TV screenshots as part of their discussion. Academic ethics requires such uses to be cited or credited, but copyright is a separate issue. 

Fair use often allows using existing works in new student works, but may not always. We have more information about fair use generally, and specifically about the use of images in academic contexts, or you can contact copyinfo@umn.edu with questions. 

If you don’t think your use falls within fair use, you may still be able to include third party content in your dissertation with permission from the rightsholder. This may cost money. The Libraries Copyright Permissions service can help.

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