Found In Translation: Picture this: Using free and open-source images in science communications

by Carey Toane
Images are often an afterthought when sending our translational research communications out into the world. That perfect picture of a patient or a researcher in a lab you grabbed off a Google image search might be perfectly acceptable for a course assignment, but posting it in a public forum is less than ideal.
Why, you ask? Images are subject to copyright, and breach of copyright is arguably illegal and certainly unprofessional in most contexts. So, if you wouldn’t use content from an academic article or textbook without citing your source, don’t use images unless you have permission*.
Never fear. Thanks to the open source movement, there are plenty of options for free and open source images you can use, if you’re not able to create your own image or infographic. Let’s start with the gold standard, Creative Commons Image Search. Do yourself a favour and just save that link into your browser toolbar right now. Working under a mandate to make the world’s content more equitable and accessible, Creative Commons search isn’t a search engine, but rather a one-stop platform for you to search a range of other sources you may have heard of, like Google, Flickr, and Pixabay.
Using the search is straightforward. Select a platform, search using keywords, and set parameters based on your needs. For instance, if you want to adapt images or use them as-is, select the box that says “modify, adapt, or build upon.” If you need an image for content you’re being paid for, or for a publication that makes a profit, select “use for commercial purposes.” This aligns your needs as a user with the conditions that the content creators have set for its use.
This agreement is laid out in the Creative Commons licence attached to the image. These are often abbreviated into something like “CC BY 4.0,” which means you can freely share or adapt the content, but you must give attribution to the creator, and you can’t put any restrictions on its use by anyone else. This is easily and neatly done in a link in a caption beneath any image. Seems fair to me.
It’s not a fail-proof system. Because it doesn’t create the content, Creative Commons urges users to follow the link to ensure that the content is indeed covered under a CC licence. It takes a bit of clicking, but when you consider that paid stock images can run hundreds of dollars, it’s worth a bit of effort to enjoy the advantages that open source has to offer.
If you’re looking for something specialized, it’s worth checking out the University of Toronto Libraries or your public library collections to see what they might offer. Many libraries and museums around the world are putting their image collections online for free use. And it’s not limited to photography: a search engine query for free or open source vector graphics or public domain artworks will bring back dozens of possibilities as well. You’ll never need to steal an image again.
* If you absolutely need to use a copyrighted image and no other will do, you can ask for permission. Note however that this can be a long process, and may very well include paying for the right.
Feature image by Jon Tyson from Unsplash