Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Plagiarism, WikiPedia, and encouraging students to CARE about digital ethics

I posted the following as a comment to Andrew Dubber’s recent post, “Pasting your way to failure.” I’m curious what ideas you have about helping students CARE about digital ethics.

Plagiarism certainly is a problem, and intellectual property is a complex issue that most learners don’t adequately understand. I’ve found many educators as well as students are confused about attribution versus copyright compliance. I addressed this and other issues in my winter 2003 article, “Copyright 101 for Educators” published by TCEA.

On the topic of WikiPedia, it is important for people to know that all content shared there is placed or already in the public domain. That means people can legally do whatever they want with it (including copying and using it without attribution,) but that sort of behavior certainly doesn’t follow academic conventions and should be frowned upon. Reusing WikiPedia content which actually IS in the public domain isn’t illegal, therefore. Of course people do post content to WikiPedia which either isn’t in the public domain or they don’t have the right legally to put into the public domain, so this leads to the content being taken down and some potential confusion. One important point to understand, then, is that just because content is in WikiPedia, it is not necessarily in the public domain. It should be, but if it has been recently posted and not reviewed by editors, it is certainly possible it’s been uploaded there and put in the public domain erroneously. The same thing can and does happen from time to time with Creative Commons licensing of images on sites like Flickr, as the case of Virgin Mobile Australia and a summer camp photo used in a national advertising campaign revealed.

One very important question which I don’t have a good answer to is helping young people understand, at a gut level, that plagiarism is wrong. Certainly digital technologies make copy and paste easier, but do we really need new ways for helping students understand the ethics of plagiarism? I remember teachers in high school who literally tore up and destroyed student work which they suspected was plagiarized. The case I am remembering was harsh and I think unjustified, but it certainly left a lasting impression. I am not saying teachers should be draconian and act without just cause, but I do think that the way plagiarizers learn about the impropriety of their actions is through consequences. I’d be interested to know what others think about this question as well, and how they are addressing it. How can we help students not only understand digital ethics, but also CARE about them? I agree with those who observe people learn ethics by making decisions, not by being lectured to or hearing about the Character Counts “word of the week.” I think we need moderated social networks in schools where students have opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, and we engage all the stakeholders not as “network nazis” but as co-learners who help maintain a safe as well as ethical learning environment for everyone.

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8 responses to “Plagiarism, WikiPedia, and encouraging students to CARE about digital ethics”

  1. David Avatar

    Getting elementary students to understand that you just can’t take pictures off the Internet without citing a source has been challenging for me. Right now, I’m doing a project with 4th graders where they are researching an animal. I have shown them a few copyright-friendly websites where they can use pictures for their project. I also showed them how to write down where they retrieved their pictures so they can credit the source for their final project.
    They have been doing this but it seems they’re just going through the motions; most don’t really understand why this is necessary despite my explanations of legal and ethical reasons. It seems like they understand that you can’t copy someone else’s words but don’t quite grasp that images can’t be taken either (whoa, triple negative).

  2. kjnlkjn Avatar

    Wikipedia is not public domain. The content is under the GFDL and requires attribution. Failing to provide such attribution and/or follow the other terms of the GFDL when reuseing wikipedia text would be unlawful.

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar


    I stand corrected, thank you for this important clarification. According to the WikiPedia page for the GFDL the license:

    …gives readers the same rights to copy, redistribute and modify a work and requires all copies and derivatives to be available under the same license.

    You are correct, content included in WikiPedia is not in the public domain, since its commercial redistribution IS limited by the terms of this license.

    In the case of citing WikiPedia when content there is quoted or utilized under fair use, I understand that the legal determination of “fair use” in the United States is not directly impacted by a person’s proper attribution of the source. Therefore, I do not think your statement “Failing to provide such attribution… would be unlawful” is accurate. I could be mistaken, of course, and it is good to be having this conversation to clarify this.

    Several years ago, I heard an intellectual property lawyer from the Texas Tech law school state at forum on copyright that lawyers never look to someone’s bibliography or “works cited” page to determine the legality of the use when “fair use” is in question. I suppose that still can be true, and a failure to properly cite a source could be a violation of the licensing terms. That would be a different issue/question than whether a reuse constitutes “fair use.”

    I don’t find anything about “proper academic citation of WikiPedia is required” on on the GFDL WikiPedia page. If proper citation IS required to comply legally with the license, then I would think that should be included on that page.

    What IS explicitly prohibited by the GFDL license terms is commercial reuse.

    I don’t think it is accurate to say a student who does not properly attribute their sources when quoting WikiPedia is breaking the law. They are breaking the norms of academic source citation, but I don’t think they are breaking the terms of the license or the law.

    If others have perspectives and clarifications on this, please share them. These are important questions.

  4. kjnlkjn Avatar

    commercial use is allowed. From the actual license text:

    “You may copy and distribute the Document in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially, provided that this License, the copyright notices, and the license notice saying this License applies to the Document are reproduced in all copies, and that you add no other conditions whatsoever to those of this License.”

    The exact requirements for giving credit under the GFDL are a matter of some debate. Generally it is accepted that credit is required although the exact form such credit should take is uncertain due to the lack of relevant case law.

    Fair use is a secondary issue since it would only likely apply for small scale copying and in any case the principle of fair use only exists under 3? (I’m not sure of the new Israeli copyright act has come into force yet) legal systems.

  5. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks for this additional clarification. I should have remembered this, I’ve heard Jimmy Wales talk both in his older TEDTalk and on ForaTV about the reasons for this, wanting to unleash creativity by permitting commercial as well as noncommercial reuse.

    One of the important points from an educator’s standpoint is that failing to properly cite an article or content in WikiPedia isn’t illegal.

    I hadn’t heard about the new Israeli copyright act, I’ll have to read up on it. So the key takeaways here appear to be:
    1- WikiPedia content is NOT public domain.
    2- WikiPedia content is licensed under the GFDL.
    3- Proper citation is expected under the GFDL, but the exact requirements and legal ramifications of proper/improper citations under this license are not clear at the current time.
    4- Fair use determinations are secondary / apart from discussions about whether the GFDL terms are followed in a particular instance.

    Bottom line: Students SHOULD cite their sources properly (including WikiPedia) but it is not clear that source citations (the bibliography or works cited section) impact the legality of quoting or using content.

    All of this does not address one of the key questions of this post originally, however, which is: How can we help students understand the IMPORTANCE of respecting intellectual property rights and not plagiarizing?

  6. kjnlkjn Avatar

    To get students to respect IP they need to become in effect stakeholders. If you have IP you want to protect you are more likely to help protect others. Giving students a project to put things online (or even contribute to Wikipedia) and emphasising the copyright situation with regards to their work might be one way to give them such a stake.

  7. A. Mercer Avatar

    I’m an elementary computer lab teacher…
    I have to agree with Comment 6, and I do something that is counter-intuitive to a lot of Web 2.0 thinking to make my students stakeholders. I tell them their work is copyright protected, and I post that on our class blogs (I also state all my work is cc). I think a lot of Web 2.0 teachers in their love of Creative Commons impose this on their students. I feel we do not have the right to determine IP rights for work that we require students to do as part of their education.

    I also do some of what the teacher in Comment 1 does, showing kids CC sites, and giving them CC materials. I also give them accurate information. I tell them for unpublished multimedia projects in class, they could use copyright materials, but why? They will never be able to publish it on the internet, so start with cc, then they can.

    This is all very interesting to me because the issue of using cut and paste came up last week in the lab. I have been asking fifth graders to read content pages, and then write a couple sentences about what they learned.

    Many have asked (or just gone ahead and done it) if they could cut and paste. I told them they need to put it in their own words. I will be doing a follow-up lesson showing them why I want them to summarize (to show they have learned).

    One of the advantages of being the computer lab teacher is that I’ll have most students for more than a year, in fact I may have some for up to seven years.