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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?

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    The license of individual figures on WIkipedia should be checked. That is definitely a factor to consider.
    – Raphaël
    Jun 1 '21 at 14:15
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    Any image you use at least needs to be checked for copyright and permission from the author. Depending on the image and how good it is, it might be easier to re-make a new version in your own style.
    – Tom
    Jun 2 '21 at 12:35
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    Also read carefully what terms you sign with the journal. It is not uncommon that you sign over copyright of the article and all materials in it to the journal, which you can't really do with third party material under e.g. creative commons.
    – Jens
    Jun 2 '21 at 13:08
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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.
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    In addition to checking the terms of the licence, I wonder to what extent one has to investigate whether the person who agreed to release the image under such-and-such a version of the Creative Commons Licence really is the copyright holder...? Jun 1 '21 at 20:26
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    @DanielHatton I think it's generally agreed the burden for that falls on Wikimedia. I don't think you can be held liable for things that were fraudulently licensed upstream.
    – OrangeDog
    Jun 2 '21 at 13:53
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    @DanielHatton to what extent are you responsible for checking whether you are buying stolen merchandise from a store? The onus is on the provider of the copyrighted/licenced material to have everything in order, you cannot legitimately have any idea whether the provider - for example - does not have some private contract that allows him to use provide it like that.
    – mishan
    Jun 2 '21 at 13:54
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    @OrangeDog: Wikipedia expressly disclaims all liability for misinformation, which presumably includes misleading copyright notices. You have sole responsibility to verify them. If you don't like doing the legwork, then buy an image from someone who is willing to indemnify you for it.
    – Kevin
    Jun 2 '21 at 23:02
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    @Kevin that disclaimer also explicitly excludes the license, and is for Wikipedia, not Wikimedia Commons (where the images come from). My advice is to ask a lawyer if you're really concerned.
    – OrangeDog
    Jun 3 '21 at 9:26
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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.

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    I disagree with the second paragraph. Images should be evaluated for relevance, certainly, but not rejected simply because they appear on wikipedia. Wikipedia and wikimedia are very clear in their licensing restrictions/permissions. Mostly they are fairly permissive. henning gives better advice about licensing.
    – Buffy
    Jun 1 '21 at 14:32
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    It's not even just for Wikipedia really. I would give the same advice if someone asked whether it's a good idea to include a figure from a basic textbook in a research paper.
    – silvado
    Jun 1 '21 at 18:33
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    I'm not sure why you think wikipedia only has only "basic" information. I find some pretty high level math articles there. Settled knowledge, perhaps, but not necessarily basic. And many cited papers are also settled knowledge.
    – Buffy
    Jun 1 '21 at 18:38
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    Minor note, 'basic concept images' are often relevant in papers that cross traditional field boundaries. Recently was reading a paper about motion tracking that included some basic explanations of certain biological concepts (around limits on facial human motion). For copyright reasons they - I think - created their own images, but those images could've been taken straight from a textbook. Jun 2 '21 at 7:20
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    I strongly disagree with but you shouldn't. As a counter example, one of my favorite ecology papers uses a photo from Wikimedia. The paper (esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1890/080209) was published in a top ecology journal. Jun 2 '21 at 13:41
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This varies by the image. Be sure to check the license carefully.

For example here's an image from Wikipedia:

enter image description here

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.

enter image description here

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.

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  • Though in a case like this wouldn't it make more sense to cite the original source which Wikipedia got it from (Library and Archives Canada)? Jun 3 '21 at 1:37
  • @aquirdturtle right, this might not be the best example. I'll add another.
    – Allure
    Jun 3 '21 at 2:00
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    Is including a CC-BY-SA image into a scientific paper considered creating a work that evokes the share alike paragraph? In this case it would not be possible to use the image as the publisher of the article surely will not use CC-BY-SA, but their own license.
    – kap
    Jun 3 '21 at 10:23
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    The CC-BY-SA license does not forbid modifications, you just have to license any derived work with the same license. A license that would not allow modifications is CC-BY-ND (but that one is usually not allowed on Wikipedia). Jun 3 '21 at 17:35
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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"...

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You might not be allowed to. When your paper is accepted you will later have to sign a copyright transfer form (content depending on the publisher). Depending on the content of that form you can fulfill it or you cant. So you need to ask the publisher first if they were to accept such pictures.

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  • Indeed, they will want to see the license, which is why it's important to examine it beforehand.
    – henning
    Jun 3 '21 at 11:08
  • @henning also, if you do not have copyright, you cannot transfer it (but it depends on the wording of the contract)
    – lalala
    Jun 3 '21 at 12:28
  • Not all publishers require copyright transfer; IMO the better ones don't.
    – Reid
    Jun 4 '21 at 20:15
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Yes, you can use free images from Wikipedia. However, please validate whether the image has copyrighted.

I suggest that you make your own image or modify the existing image to avoid copyright issues.

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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:

  1. The figure is simply the perfect figure for the paper at hand and using it was a principled choice.
  2. 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.

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