I am new in the field of writing papers and publishing them. This is my first work. While writing my paper, I thought it would be great to explain some concepts I have used in this paper beforehand. I am also planning to include images of "how the thing works". Can I take an image from Wikipedia and use it in my paper? Will it be plagiarism?
There are two potential issues.
- You avoid plagiarism by providing adequate references. When referencing Wikipedia, make sure to use a stable link with timestamp.
- You avoid copyright infringement by examining the license for the image and using the image only within its constraints. It probably is some kind of creative commons license that allows commercial use, but it's best to check for each one.
Technically you maybe can, but you shouldn't.
First, if you cite correctly, it is not plagiarism. However, if you want a publisher to publish your paper, you also need to care about copyright issues. Because plagiarism is an academic concept and copyright a (mostly) commercial one, they don't exactly overlap. If a figure is published in a paper and you cannot resort to a fair use clause, it may violate copyright even if it is cited correctly. That will also depend on the license of the figure on Wikipedia, and whether the publisher will agree to having a separately licensed figure in the paper.
Second, even apart from copyright/plagiarism issues, I would argue that it is often a bad idea to include figures from Wikipedia in a research paper, even if for illustrative purposes. Research papers address an expert audience and should focus on aspects that are novel for this audience. If there is a figure on Wikipedia, it is probably a relatively basic concept for your target audience. In that case, it would be better to just cite a standard textbook or similar reference regarding these concepts, and use a figure to illustrate what is new about your paper.
This varies by the image. Be sure to check the license carefully.
For example here's an image from Wikipedia:
I can safely reproduce this because it is in the public domain. Wikipedia's page on the image is here, and I quote:
This work created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain. This is because it is one of the following:
- It is a photograph taken prior to 1 June 1957; or
- It was published prior to 1971; or
- It is an artistic work other than a photograph or engraving (e.g. a painting) which was created prior to 1971.
HMSO has declared that the expiry of Crown Copyrights applies worldwide (ref: HMSO Email Reply)
Not every image will have a similar license. You will have to check the image you want to use.
Edit: here's another example, from the Wikipedia article on parallax.
This image was drawn by Wikipedia editor JustinWick. I can safely reproduce this because it is CC-BY-SA, i.e. I can share it as long as it's attributed & I use a similar license if I modify it (which I have not). The license is here:
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. You are free:
- to share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work
- to remix – to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:
attribution – You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.
share alike – If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same or compatible license as the original.
You can find more details about how to reuse Wikipedia content here if you need them.
It's good to explain some concepts, but it is a paper you are writing to show what you are working on, it is not a book (nor a review paper, I guess).
This means that concepts has to be clear to the reader, or you provide a very short explanation and a reference to someone that presented the concept before and in detail.
If you need figure to express the concept, draw them by yourself. It takes longer, but then you can reuse them on presentations, reports, talks (with minor modifications, sometimes you give up all your rights with publication...), without your presentation having a figure "taken from wikipedia", which would look like to the casual attendee of your presentation as "I put this yesterday evening from wikipedia because I knew no better"...
I agree with Silvado's answer "Technically you maybe can, but you shouldn't," but I'd like to elaborate an another part of this. Like it or not, if you cite Wikipedia like this in a professional paper, it will inevitably come across to many as lazy or amateurish. In my experience at least, citing Wikipedia is rare for professional articles, and common in student work. When they see this, readers will consider two possibilities:
- The figure is simply the perfect figure for the paper at hand and using it was a principled choice.
- The author is inexperienced and isn't familiar with standards in the field, or being is lazy.
Publishing is generally pretty competitive. I don't know what your field is or where you're trying to publish, but you don't want to give readers an excuse to dislike your paper, so doing anything even make people consider #2 above is probably a bad idea. Similarly, many (correctly or not) still don't view Wikipedia as a very reliable or professional source, especially in something as formal as a scientific paper, so referencing it will inevitably wrinkle some noses regardless of the figure's merit.
As a side note, I suspect it's pretty rare that #1 is actually true. In my experience you typically can (and should) customize even a simple a figure to be more tailored towards your novel work in the paper. This can help keeping the style consistent as well.