How to avoid plagiarising online content

Jennifer Hamrick
Thursday 17 December 2015

You are most likely familiar with the term plagiarism – the act of passing off someone else’s work or ideas as your own. You may even be aware that in order to avoid plagiarism you must give proper attribution to the originating source.

In print, we have developed very specific techniques to avoid plagiarism. These include references, footnotes, appendices and bibliographies, which can be formatted in a variety of styles, but ultimately contain all the information necessary to locate the original source material.

But how do you avoid plagiarising online? This post will go through the basic techniques for properly attributing and citing digital content including text, images, video and audio material.

Citing online text

When writing your own content, you may find yourself needing to use information or content from another website or online source. The easiest way to properly attribute this content is to provide the name of your source and include a hyperlink to the webpage where you found your information.

Here is an example of properly citing an online source:

According to Scottish Natural Heritage, there are over 250 species of wild bird in Britain.

In the above example, the information is accredited to the content owner (Scottish Natural Heritage) and there is a hyperlink to the webpage from where that information was gathered. Although preferable, it is not always necessary to state the name of your source as long as you include a hyperlink to the correct page.

As with print, if you are quoting direct text from a source, this needs to be displayed in quotation marks with the name of the source and a hyperlink to the page where that quote was located.

Here is an example of quoting direct text:

Bad weather has affected travel in Scotland. “Snow and icy conditions have affected some travel, including road and train services to and from Perth” reports BBC news.

Keep in mind that, just like print, even paraphrasing another’s idea or content requires attribution. When you cite online textual content by using hyperlinks and name attribution, there is no need to include a bibliography because readers can directly access the source of your information.

Attributing images

Using online images in your work is not as simple as copying and pasting. Before you take an image from the web, check its copyright license. Different types of licenses include (but are not limited to):

  • All rights reserved – the image or content owner holds all rights to their work. Anything under this copyright license may not be redistributed, used or built upon for any reason.
  • Creative Commons – a variety of attribution licenses which, depending on the license, allows you to distribute and build upon another’s work as long as proper attribution is given.
  • Public domain – anything categorized in the public domain does not need to be attributed to its original source and can be built upon and redistributed.

Keep in mind that different countries have different types of copyright licenses. An image can be considered as public domain in one country, but not in another.

The photo below was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, a database of Creative Commons media files. It has the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, which means that you can use, share and transform the image as long as you provide appropriate acccreditation, a link to the license and indicate if changes were made. As you can see in the caption underneath the photo, I have attributed the image as specified by the copyright license.

An example of photo with copyright
Photo: “NewtonsPrincipia”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NewtonsPrincipia.jpg#/media/File:NewtonsPrincipia.jpg by Andrew Dunn.

Wikimedia Commons license

An example of a public domain imageThe image to the left is from Pixabay, a database of copyright-free images. Images like these can be downloaded, modified and distributed commercially or otherwise without attribution.

Public domain license from Pixabay

If an online image does not specify its copyright license, do not assume that it is in the public domain! When in doubt, contact the image owner to find out the copyright license or find a different image.

Sourcing video and audio material

YouTube videos also have different copyright licenses, so be sure to check these in the same way you would for image licenses. Luckily, unlike images, Creative Commons YouTube videos are easy to properly attribute because the source video titles are automatically linked to display beneath the video player.

Below is the information section of a YouTube video that has used a Creative Commons video. As you can seen, there is a link next to “Source videos” called “View attributions”. By clicking this link, users can see the original source of the video content.

YouTube link to attribution

A YouTube CC original source
The source video is automatically linked to the video using it.

For videos and audio outwith YouTube, you need to determine the correct copyright license (or check with the video owner if unmarked) and put in the proper attribution which may include the video’s title, owner name, link to the video page and copyright license.

Useful Creative Commons and public domain resources

  • Flickr
  • Pixabay
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • YouTube Audio Library
  • Google has a useful image search feature which allows you to search by usage rights. However, this feature is not always accurate, so make sure to check these images’ webpages to verify their usage rights.

Usage rights search feature in Google images

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