top of page
  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Getting the most out of working with an illustrator for your science communication project (Using Im

This article is the fourth in a series aimed at helping you enhance your #scicommand #sciart by avoiding #visualplagiarism. It will do so by laying out some best practices for dealing with images (which are, by their nature) visual intellectual property protected by copyrights.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and no part of this article or series should be construed as legal advice. 

Please chime in, in the comments or by contacting me, if you have suggestions for how to enhance this article or the series.


Custom illustrations can make your science communication more compelling. And they don’t have to be hard to get or break your budget. (Child drawing a bison, ©2017)



As discussed in the first article, humans are visual animals. As a result, your image choices are fundamental to communicating the significance of your research and the information you want your students to understand. Images are often key to engaging people, let alone convincing an audience to support science research or policy making based on scientific evidence. And, image choice is critical for people relating to scientists as people, and picturing themselves as having a stake in science, or becoming a scientist themselves.

Also note: Much of what this article addresses – the basics of working with an illustrator – is also relevant to working with other professional image creators (e.g. photographers, graphic designers, animators, etc.).

That being said, illustrations can be a particularly powerful choice for communicating your science. This is because illustrations can do some things that photos can’t.

An illustration can highlight key features and combine elements, create an accurate representation by showing multiple angles or cross-sections, etc.

20150806_vertebrae sketches_clean_sig

Elk vertebrae sketches, ©2017

Furthermore, illustrations “think” like the human brain. Recent neurological research indicates the brain actively seeks outlines. Although we don’t tend to think of it this way, what our mind’s eye sees may look more like a drawing than a photograph [1].

And, importantly, illustrations can generate an emotive connection.

A fair body of research tells us that making affective, emotional, connections is not just a compelling, but an essential way of helping learners connect prior experiences to new information. This affective connection is particularly important if the learning you are facilitating may contradict a student’s, reader’s, or audience member’s prior knowledge [2, 3].

So, let’s say you want to incorporate #sciart illustrations into your next #scicomm effort. But, none of the images you’ve found online meet your needs. And, you don’t (for whatever reason – time, inclination, skill level) want to create the images yourself.

We can think of commissioning SciArt according to the 4 Cs:

1. Collaboration

A productive way to think of the experience, the relationship, of working with an illustrator is to start by conceptualizing it as a collaboration. Involve the illustrator as early in the project as possible, so that you both have an opportunity to contribute ideas, ask questions, etc.

2. Commitment

Additionally, engaging an illustrator should entail a commitment on your part, as well as the illustrator’s. We’ll get more into the importance of formalizing that commitment below.

3. Communication

Both collaboration and commitment necessarily involve communication, which will be essential for a productive illustration experience for you both.

4. Copyrights

All creative work done in the U.S. is automatically copyrighted upon creation. Rules vary by country elsewhere, so plan to look into that if you commission illustration abroad. Here in the U.S., though, our laws mean the illustrator (usually) owns the copyrights to all their work, even if you are paying them to do it.

There are two exceptions: work-for-hire or when you negotiate to buy those rights from them, and we’ll get into that in a bit more detail a little later on.

Even though the illustrator holds the copyrights, it is importantly, recognize that you are probably in a position of greater power/advantage than the illustrator you are hiring or contracting or commissioning. After all, you are the one with the money, and with the institution and/or publisher. So, it is your responsibility to do everything you can to ensure the experience is mutually fair and beneficial.

How do we do this? We’ll take that up in the next article – Illustration Commission Considerations – which will start with a focus on contracts.


[1] Kingdon, Jonathan. “In the Eye of the Beholder.” Field Notes on Science and Nature. Ed. Michael R. Canfield. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U Press, 2011. 129-60.

[2] Miller, Mary. “Teaching and Learning in Affective Domain.” Teaching and Learning in Affective Domain – Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching and Technology. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

[3] “Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions in Learning.” Prior Knowledge and Misconceptions in Learning. Academic Advancement Network. Ed. Lois Rosen. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

#scicommadvice #creativecommons #publicdomain #usingimagesabestpracticesprimer #sciart #makingsciencematter #science #resource #marketing #STEAM #usingimageslegally #tips #tip #communicationstip #visualscicomm

0 views0 comments
bottom of page