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I am an academic in a field where we explore the performance of materials for a particular application based on just a few metrics. Right now, there is no central repository of this information. My idea was to fix this by building a website that maintains a plot of each metric (potentially from multiple papers) for each material system.

My question is this: a typical article in my field will have a figure with x/y datapoints of the performance metric for the material being studied. I have access to journals through my university and would like to download papers and digitize the datapoints from the figures using a tool such as webplotdigitizer. I would then upload the x/y values (and not the figure or any other content from the paper) into a database. That database would then generate its own figures using a plotting tool and make them available on a website. I would also want to make the data itself available openly for researchers.

Looking online briefly it seems like academic publishers have copyright over the figure itself and not the underlying data. See here and here, for instance. I am also familiar with books that do something close to what I want (something like CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics). I also know there are existing online projects that are similar to what I want: the protein data bank, for instance. However, I'm not a lawyer and I don't know if there are special legal requirements to make them work.

Is this reuse of data legal? Should I seriously consider talking to a lawyer before opening it to the public or is it clear cut enough that I won't need to worry.

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    While not a legal requirement, attribution is expected in academia and failure to do so may be academic misconduct
    – Dale M
    Nov 9, 2022 at 21:38
  • Thanks! Yes, the plan would be (since the data is coming from published papers) to have citation information available on each page with aggregated plots Nov 11, 2022 at 16:49

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It is clear that facts are not subject to copyright but the expression of them can be copyrightable. From your question it sounds like you are on solid ground but specific things you end up doing may or may not be free of copyright issues.

Certain ways of organizing information that involves some minimal creativity may qualify to be copyright protected so your compilation might be protectable as a whole.

You should look into the European protection for databases. It is not, like most of the rest of copyright law, based on minimal creativity but on the effort it takes to compile and maintain. From your question, this might help you protect your work rather than hurt your creation of your work.

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Summarizing data is legal.

A good example of that is the Particle Data Group which summarizes the bottom line conclusions of high energy physics experiments in an organized manner and cites to the sources of each bottom line conclusion that it references.

For example, it lists the top quark mass determined in every direct measurement experiment paper for all time, with the value of the top quark mass determined in that experiment, with a citation to each relevant paper, and then comes up with an error weighted global average value for each kind of measurement (eliminating superseded papers from the running average). It does so for hundreds of different kinds of measurements, mostly related to the decay property of short lived composite particles called hadrons. This makes the data easier to use, since most papers have experimental data on more than one kind of particle and each kind of particle has data about it spread over many published papers. It also standardizes the formatting and units used for each result to make it easier to compare the results.

Republishing academic journal papers in full or substantial part without the consent of the copyright holder is not legal. It is copyright infringement, even if done with full attribution.

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Not really a legal opinion:
it also depends on the practices in your field. Although the publisher has copyright over the figure, the researchers who have produced the data might well have the property of the data, and it is advisable to ask their permission to use the data. Even if not required legally, it is likely to be viewed as a matter of politeness. One could also request the researchers in question to share their data - although the delays of the response and the sharing format might be prohibitive. In physics, in my experience, data are usually passed mostly to closed collaborators.

On the other hand, there are fields that require that all the published data and/or code are made public. E.g., the data obtained by genetic sequencing are routinely deposited into public repositories, whereas the metadata and the results of the analysis used in figures are required to be part of the article Supplementary material, for more reputed journals.

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