How plagiarism is different on Wikipedia and how to help your students avoid it

By on May 18, 2018

How plagiarism is different on Wikipedia and how to help your students avoid it

By on May 18, 2018

How plagiarism is different on Wikipedia and how to help your students avoid it

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!

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 contact@wikiedu.org.

2 responses to “How plagiarism is different on Wikipedia and how to help your students avoid it

  1. I think it’s important to distinguish between adding a sentence, with an in-line citation, to Wikipedia, versus writing a new section of an article, or an entirely new article. For new sections or new articles, plagiarism is a definite concern. For the addition of a sentence, with a citation, plagiarism is NOT a significant issue, and close-paraphrasing is – in my opinion, as a long-time Wikipedia contributor – perfectly fine.

    From Wikipedia: Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

    So, first, it’s difficult to argue that the addition of a single sentence to a Wikipedia article, with a citation is in any way “representing” that the sentence is one’s own original work.

    Second, any sentence that is added should be factual, because individual opinions don’t belong in Wikipedia articles unless the author of that opinion is both notable and specifically mentioned. And factual statements – “Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815”, for example – are not subject to copyright (https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-protect.html), and similarly aren’t an issue for plagiarism, because they are not the author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions; they’re just facts (see, for example, https://desales.libguides.com/avoidingplagiarism/factoropinion ).

    That’s not to say that newspaper articles, which are supposed to be factual, can be copied in large chunks. The larger the amount of text involved, the more creativity and originality are involved – in determining what is included and what is left out, in the order of presentation, in connecting words (“But”, “however”), in the choice of adjectives and adverbs, etc. But a single sentence – “The President said that he had not spoken to the ambassador prior to the announcement on May 3”, for example – generally lacks such claims of originality, and lightly paraphrasing it (often required simply to fit it to the tone of the Wikipedia article), with an in-line citation, removes (again, in my opinion) any potential issue of plagiarism.

  2. I second John’s concerns here. I would even say that there is something bothering in some sentences.

    Of course, I totally get the pedagogical aim of this guideline : students tend to copy-paste. some of them modify slightly what they paste (they are close-paraphrasing) to get away with googling their opus, and this is sloppy work we, as teachers, do not want to encourage.

    As John points out, it would be problematic to write a whole article this way but it’s fine for micro editing, though, and a whole lot of work in WP is about just that. Editing WP is not the same as writing an essay. It can be. But it’s more than that. It’s about a collective work where the very notion of authorship is diluted.

    I would argue that plagiarism is an education concern, but not a Wikipedian concern, and I don’t quite understand what a “WP’s definition of plagiarism” could be and how it “may differ from what you and your students are accustomed to”.

    Wikipedia is about “sharing the sum of the whole of human knowledge”. When I teach WP, I insist that the third pilar, the CC-BY-SA licensing policy, is the core of a worldview, a Weltanschuung, that WP shares with Free Software. In a Wikipedia political dream, everything would be CC-BY-SA and could be reproduced freely. Of course, you’d still have to cite.

    There are even WP articles that rely on CC0 or public domain texts that are litterally “plagiarized”. They are copied and pasted because they permit to do so. And it’s a wonderful example to see that reproduction of texts can exist that way while publishers impose their views about plagiarism with copyright policies . (I would even argue that plagiarism is more a publishing norm than an academic one see https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2427955)

    As your example shows, it is no copyvio (and copyvio IS a strong WP norm) to publish a Shakespeare text, but it would be plagiarism to claim it’s yours. But there is no such thing as claiming authorship in WP ! A copyvio is still a copyvio and WP (and their contributors) are liable, but then it’s a legal concern. Plagiarism is an ethical concern, and one that does not fit in a world where authorship is not a thing.

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