The reality of plagiarism

PlagiarismThe Internet gives us access to a wealth of information. Whereas in the days before the Internet information was mostly found in libraries or knowledgeable people, today all we have to do is type a request in a search engine and be overwhelmed with too much information to handle. In fact information has become such a commodity that I think we have lost respect for other people’s intellectual property. Unless we intentionally teach our students to cite the sources of their information and how to use raw information to produce ‘new’ information, we may unwittingly be encouraging our students to be intellectual thieves. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I learned this the hard way.

The website that landed me in trouble

At a previous school (2003 to 2007) I taught marine science. It was a compulsory, semester-long course for grade 12 (year 13) students. I loved teaching the subject since much of the host nation’s culture and economy were rooted and dependent on the ocean. In addition, marine science gave great context to the pure sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology.

Each student created a detailed, scholarly website of a marine organism of their choice as a culminating project for the course. I encouraged students to use any resources they might find on the Internet but to make an effort to cite the sources of their information. Although our school didn’t have a policy about acknowledging digital sources, I was very aware of the consequences of plagiarism since I was enrolled in a postgraduate degree at the time and the university emphasized to us the importance of respecting intellectual property. In the end, the students and I were very proud of their final product.

A few weeks after they completed the project I got an email from a marine photographer who threatened me with legal action. He claimed that I was using an image that he owned illegally. Fortunately for me the student did cite the source of the photo correctly, which I pointed out to the photographer. In a gesture of good will, I removed the offending page from the website’s menu so that public users could not browse to the photo. I didn’t want to delete the page altogether because I wanted to keep the website as an example for future classes. I emailed the photographer back to say that I had removed the page from the public eye.

However, this was not good enough! A week later the photographer emailed me back with an even more threatening message demanding that I remove the page immediately. He did not like that the image was still embedded on my student’s page despite the fact that no-one could navigate to it from our site. I obviously had something to learn about how search engines catalogued images. I promptly removed the image from the page because I was concerned with the integrity of my students and our school, and I had no desire of settling this matter in court.

The ethical dilemma

My students and I learned an important lesson from this experience. Although we felt that we followed due process by acknowledging the source of the image, the creator’s response clearly demonstrated that acknowledging the source of our information was not enough. When a photo, video or piece of text was produced by someone else, it was important to ask the creator permission to use it if the licensing wasn’t clear – especially when the creator made a living from it! The authors can say no and there is nothing you can do about it – it is their intellectual property. I was very fortunate that I didn’t end up in the Catch-22 position of the blog author who had to pay thousands of dollars for the ‘incorrect’ use of an image in a post1. The good news is that some creators will be more than willing to give you permission to use media if you ask them for permission first and explain that you are using it for educational purposes.

By respecting the creator’s intellectual property and working with the creator to remove the “offending” image, I was fulfilling my “commitment to society, teaching and modelling those positive values which are widely accepted in society and encouraging my students to apply them and critically appreciate their significance”2 and I showed “commitment to the profession, advancing the interests of the teaching profession through responsible ethical practice”2.

Ever since this incident I am very careful when I use images in material that I publish online and I try my best to use images that are clearly marked for reuse. I go to great lengths to teach students the importance of citing their sources and to use images with a license that gives your permission to freely reuse an image. Google Search allows you to choose this setting, as shown in this screen shot I have taken.

Image Labeled for ReuseThere are also many photography websites that produce images that can be reused with permission, so long as they are cited correctly. Most of the photos I use on this blog are either from or I have taken them myself.

The moral of the story: my students and I always have to cite our sources and we need to make an effort to ask a creator for permission to use work if we are not sure whether it is legal to use it or not. I believe this is becoming more and more important as we collaboratively “do things” with knowledge in a knowledge society3.

References and notes:
1. Chrystie. (7 January 2016). The $7,500 Blogging Mistake That Every Blogger Needs to Avoid! Retrieved 21 March 2016 from
2. The Education Council Code of Ethics for Certficated Teachers. Retrieved 21 March 2016 from
3. Gilbert, J. (2005). Cathing the knowledge wave? The knowledge society and the future of education. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Photo credit: jobadge via / CC BY-NC

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