Is it an acceptable practice to use simple graphics found on Wikipedia (and hence in Wikimedia Commons) in a conference poster?

From the legal point of view, this seems to be fine, as long as the image is properly attributed. Presumably it should suffice to mention the source in acknowledgements section. Or am I missing something?

How would this be perceived? Would it come across as unprofessional? The poster I am preparing is for an interdisciplinary and not too formal event, and the graphic I'd like to add is meant to illustrate a basic mathematical notion. (However, more general answers are very welcome.)

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    You have a whole section for acknowlegdements on a poster?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 7:50
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    @Wrzlprmft: Why not? Especially as posters can be used to present more "hands-on" topics, e.g. the current state of implementation of a prototype for a concept rather than the very abstract conceptual view, as it would be presented in a paper, a poster is the opportunity to publicly thank the helpful students who took part in the implementation by listing their names. I usually include such a section, though you may also call it an "extended footer", given that it indeed uses a somewhat smaller font size than the rest of the poster and I would count it as "metadata". Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 8:38
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    If it's a professional-looking image, and you're attributing it, go for it. I've seen some excellent open-source images on Wikipedia.
    – Compass
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 12:28
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    Can you draw a better one yourself? If yes, do it. If no, for God's sake, use the one that is done by someone better with brush and computer, than you! If uncertain, do whichever way you think looks better. Posters are there to be looked at and to learn from, not to have legal and ethical disputes about them. Your audience is curious students and colleagues, not money greedy crooks and overzealous auditors.
    – fedja
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 11:41

4 Answers 4


The primary issues with using Wikipedia for academic research are that it's a tertiary source, and there's no credibility/quality assurance.

So, you should make sure that

  • If the image contains intellectual content that requires citation, you should cite a primary source for that content.
  • The image (including its factual/intellectual content) meets academic standards of quality and accuracy.

Assuming these are satisfied, reusing images from Wikimedia (or a similar source) is not inherently unprofessional. Of course, if the image is of poor quality or doesn't fit in well with your poster, it will look unprofessional - but this would also be true if you had created the image yourself.

This is, of course, assuming that the image you are using is in Wikimedia commons (not all images on Wikipedia are), and

  • you follow the license requirements (protects against legal/copyright problems)
  • you correctly attribute the source (protects against ethical/plagiarism concerns)
  • 10
    Is it also worth mentioning that it's unwise to rely on Wikipedia correctly identifying the image's primary source & licence, and that the OP needs to verify those themselves?
    – 410 gone
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 3:35
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    If it is in the public domain, by definition there's no point to a license nor a restriction on editing. Those restrictions follow from the protections granted by copyright law, which is contrary to the public domain assumption.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 14:57
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    @EnergyNumbers In my view, if Wikipedia states "this image is under CC-BY-SA" on their webpage and you use the image in good faith, then Wikipedia is liable if that information is false, not you. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 10:54
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    @FedericoPoloni Even in the case that is true, your personal reputation is still at stake.
    – March Ho
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 11:46
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    @March Ho Have you read the lines "the graphic I'd like to add is meant to illustrate a basic mathematical notion."???? What "copyright", "correctness", "attribution",... are we talking about? The issues are clarity and precision in this case, to care about anything else is just ridiculous, IMHO.
    – fedja
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 15:24

Adding some details to the previous response, I'd like to stress that many Wikipedia images come from Wikimedia Commons, and Commons is a different project than Wikipedia. It is mainly a repository of free multimedia files

"that makes available public domain and freely-licensed educational media >content to all, and that acts as a common repository for the various projects of >the Wikimedia Foundation." The expression "educational" is to be understood >according to its broad meaning of "providing knowledge; instructional or >informative". [1]

Thus, it is possible to find great images in Commons, that come from various sources (like NASA, or other institutions like museums, galleries, libraries, academic databases, academic journals). There are great pictures on Commons.

Now, you are talking about "simple graphic", and the specific image is "meant to illustrate a basic mathematical notion". [2] There are many professionals who use their free time to provide Commons (and hence Wikipedia articles) with illustrative, clear graphics.

I can't think of no valid reason not to use a graphic meant to illustrate the exact concept you want to illustrate, and meant to be used and shared for free, just because there would be the word "wikimedia" in the credits.

If the images suits your need and you feel it professional enough, please use it and give credit.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Commons#Policies

[2] Here's the Mathematics category.

Full disclosure: I'm a >10 years old volunteer in Wikimedia projects, and I've also been very active in movement roles like being president of a Wikimedia national chapter.

  • 3
    I welcome your contribution, but I think that you should disclose your affiliation with Wikimedia inside your answer. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 10:50
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    @FedericoPoloni Hi Federico. Maybe you're right (I have no problem disclosing it, and it is already in my bio). But let me challenge you a bit :-) I'm not paid for any of my contributions to the Wikimedia movement, neither as an editor nor as president of a no profit association affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation. I'm biased (of course) towards free and open knowledge, open access, open science and Wikimedia projects, but I'm not sure all this is a COI. Should I always disclose my opinions beforehand?
    – Aubrey
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 11:07
  • I have asked for further opinions on meta. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 11:21
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    I would think that (at the very least, here, on a site discussing academia) it would be considered courtesy to reveal possibly relevant affiliations, even if they are only tangentially related. After all, all papers I have read do it.
    – March Ho
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 11:53
  • I replied there :-)
    – Aubrey
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 16:36

The answers here are excellent, but a few points. (This from the perspective of someone who knows Wikipedia policy and Creative Commons licenses well; I do not claim any special expertise in academic standards that might go above and beyond the legal requirements, though.)

  1. The Wikipedia page or the Wikimedia Commons page will almost always have detailed information about the file's license, about its author, and about its origin. You should consult that information as a starting point, and can have a fairly high degree of confidence in its accuracy -- but to meet an academic, professional, or legal standard, you should also find ways to confirm this information for yourself. The information is intended to be helpful in that effort, but is not necessarily authoritative.

  2. When doing that verification, be aware that some of Wikipedia's sources -- including U.S. federal agencies and major museums -- provide deceptive or incomplete information. In a comment thread above, it's been noted that images in the public domain may be marked with "licenses" or other text that indicates they are only to be used for non-profit purposes, or they are not to be modified, etc. Sadly, such cases are not uncommon. Those claims are inaccurate. If a file is truly in the public domain, no such requirement can be legally binding. (If you're in such a situation and it's important, you should check with a lawyer.)

  3. Many (but not all) files will require attribution (the "BY" component of CC BY or CC BY-SA licenses). However, that attribution is to the copyright owner, not to Wikipedia or Wikimedia. As a practical matter, Wikimedia's Terms of Use suggest a link to the Wikimedia page as the minimal/standard way to fulfill that attribution (which is important in the case of anonymous/pseudonymous contributors, whose Wikimedia avatar is the only available method of attribution). But in many cases, a user provides their legal name; and in some, they even indicate a preference for how to write the attribution, perhaps including a business name (as I have done here, for example). If for some reason you prefer not to credit "Wikipedia" or "Wikimedia", that may be just fine. Look closely. Also, beware of the (thankfully rare) files you may find on Wikimedia Commons that are available under only the GFDL license; its attribution requirements are highly arcane and cumbersome!

  4. The "Share-Alike" (SA) component of a license commonly used on Wikimedia has not been discussed. It's rare that it would impact a project like this, but it could. If your poster is derived from a file with such a license (which is a different standard than merely including it), then your poster must be made available with the same license.

Disclosure was brought up in a comment thread above, so a few points about myself:

  • I'm not a lawyer
  • I'm one of many co-authors of the Wikimedia/Wikipedia Terms of Use
  • I run a training & consulting company focused on Wikipedia
  • I'm the editor of the Wikipedia Signpost newsletter.

Simple: it's unprofessional if you do it unprofessionally.

The first way to be unprofessional is to not respect copyright, moral rights and verifiability. Just use what is useful, always cite your sources and the copyright license.

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