While the overwhelming majority of students strive to avoid plagiarism on Wikipedia, they sometimes still miss the mark. Wikipedia’s definition of plagiarism differs in important ways from those set forth by academia, which is often the root of misunderstandings related to plagiarism. When students are caught plagiarizing, it’s often a case of close-paraphrasing. Students might not even realize that by changing a few words in a sentence, but keeping the original meaning, they’ve done something wrong. That’s why we’ve developed a plagiarism training module for students to learn about how to make meaningful contributions to Wikipedia in a way that is acceptable both to the academic and Wikipedia communities.
What constitutes plagiarism on Wikipedia
- Copying text word-for-word from a source
- Close-paraphrasing, or changing a few words but keeping the original structure and meaning of another sentence
- Inserting a quote without proper attribution or citation
How to avoid plagiarism on Wikipedia
A student’s sandbox on Wikipedia can be a great spot to organize their notes for articles they plan to improve. However, because a sandbox is public facing just like any other page on Wikipedia, it’s subject to the same plagiarism standards as anywhere else on the site.
Make sure students understand that they need to synthesize academic research in their own words. Rather than taking rigorous notes while reading a text, students can try asking themselves summary questions after reading:
What are the biggest take-aways? What are the results?
Keeping a list of key words and phrases, rather than copying down full quotes, is also an effective way to organize main points to include in their article. Remind students that each sentence that they construct from these notes should reflect something they’ve learned in a source. And remind them to always cite a source where they can!
How plagiarism differs from copyright violations
Plagiarism and copyright violation often overlap on Wikipedia, but they are also distinct concepts and are treated a bit differently.
Plagiarism involves passing someone else’s work off as your own. This can be their ideas, their specific wording, or the overall structure of their work. Copyright infringement is using copyright work without proper permission. Wikipedia’s primary concern is with copyright violations, since it creates legal liability for the site. But editors take plagiarism seriously as well. There are strict standards against both that other Wikipedia editors expect students to understand.
As intellectual property group Novagraaf says, you can republish Shakespeare’s works without fear of copyright infringement or plagiarism because they are old enough that they are out of copyright. If you replace Shakespeare’s name with your name, you still aren’t guilty of copyright infringement, but you are a plagiarist. On the other hand, if you reprint the Harry Potter books with JK Rowling listed as the author, you don’t have a plagiarism problem, but you would be infringing copyright.
From a student perspective, including the lyrics of a song or the text of a poem in a Wikipedia article may infringe copyright (and trigger a deletion) but won’t constitute plagiarism. Copying text from NASA’s website into a Wikipedia article won’t infringe copyright (since that text is not published under a restrictive license), but trying to pass that off as their own work for the purposes of a class assignment will be seen as plagiarism. (If you’re curious about adding open licensed text to Wikipedia, see this page on the process).
What Creative Commons licenses mean for plagiarism
When text or images are published under a particular license, they cannot be used (or published under a different license) without the permission of the person or organization that owns the copyright. The people or organizations that are willing to give that permission are pretty few and far between because they want to protect their intellectual property, their ability to profit off of it, or both. You can read more about these different licenses here.
The intricacies of these licenses are most relevant to students when they are uploading images to Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia’s image sister-site. Students who do so should take the training module about uploading images to be prepared. When students want to publish content to Wikimedia Commons, the most important note is that they look at the license under which the content was originally published. Different licenses require different forms of attribution or restrict use in different ways. If licensing information is not available, it’s not appropriate to upload or use it, as that may violate copyright.
How violations are monitored on Wikipedia
Wikipedia has varying means for detecting such violations. Often, these detections fall to other editors who swiftly delete inappropriate content when they see it. The Wikipedia Expert that supports your course is also an effective detector of potential copyright violations and plagiarism. When this happens, you, as the instructor, will receive a notice from the Dashboard so that the issue may be resolved. The Wiki Education team is also notified of all cases of plagiarism in the classes we support. We swiftly examine the nature of each case and reach out to the instructor to inform them of any relevant next steps.
What to do
If students do plagiarize or violate copyright, we’ll reach out to explain how the student may improve their work. There are often cases of false positives, so we’ll let you know if this is the case. We recognize that Wikipedia’s definition of plagiarism may differ from what you and your students are accustomed to, so we’ll all work together to ensure that both the instructor and students understand how to navigate cases of plagiarism on Wikipedia.
You got this!
Wikipedia’s strict quality standards may present new challenges to students, but ultimately these challenges can create positive outcomes for students. One of the many student learning outcomes that a Wikipedia assignment fosters is that students must have a firm grip on course material to synthesize it concisely and in their own words. And if they are confused about anything they encounter on Wikipedia, they can always review our training materials or ask their course’s Wikipedia Expert if they have questions.
For more information about teaching with Wikipedia or to get started, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.