Fair Use and Images In Science Education

Author: Shawna Wiebusch, Secondary Science Education Specialist

It’s a common theme in education: How do we teach students to be honest about their work and to give credit where credit is due? How often do we, as educators, lament the blatant “copy and paste” routine that we see all too often in student work?

How often do we explicitly model best practices in the world of copyright for our students? If we expect students to take us seriously when it comes to plagiarism, they need to see evidence that we follow our own rules.

As educators, we rely heavily on “Fair Use” in order to use images and videos often found on the internet to help explain science content to students. According to the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University, fair use is determined by the following four factors:

(1) the purpose of the use;

(2) the nature of the work used;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the work used; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the work used.1

Go to the Copyright Advisory Office’s website (http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/fair-use/fair-use-checklist/) to get a PDF of their Fair Use Checklist and to see a more thorough explanation of the four factors listed above.

Now that we have a good working definition of fair use, it’s time for resources! There are many online options for images, but some have made copyright expectations clearer than others. The five image sources described below are a good place to start.


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If you need quality drawings, go to ClipArt ETC (http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/). According to the description on the home page, their license “allows teachers and students to use up to 50 educational clipart items in a single, non-commercial project without further permission.”3 Their images are high quality, accurate, and detailed. They are not just for science, either! Go browse around. The licensing page (http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/info/license) has very user friendly information on how to use and credit works from their library.




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Google Drive (drive.google.com) has a tool called “Research” that allows you to filter your image search by usage rights (Free to use, share or modify, even commercially) and you can specify the citation format. When you drag the image into your presentation, it will automatically include the citation!


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The Public Health Image Library (http://phil.cdc.gov/phil/home.asp) has collected beautiful, high quality images. Most of them are public domain (but not all, so read carefully) and only ask that you credit the institution and contributor, if known. They have drawings and pictures for you to browse and use. Each image has details below it about who to credit and the type of license that covers that particular image.


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The National Science Foundation Media Gallery (http://nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_search.jsp) has many images and videos covering a range of science topics. Each image has instructions for how to credit it underneath, a description of the content, and a link to a high resolution JPG download.


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Don’t forget that you probably have a device that takes perfectly good pictures, yourself! If you are looking for an image of plant reproductive parts, why not take apart a flower and photograph it yourself? Or have your students do it as part of a unit of study!

Whether you find the perfect image on one of these sites or elsewhere, just remember that the best way to show students that respecting copyright is important is to follow our own expectations. Happy image finding!




[1] “Fair Use Checklist — Columbia Copyright Advisory Office.” 2009. 9 Apr. 2015 <http://copyright.columbia.edu/copyright/fair-use/fair-use-checklist/>

[2] Retrieved from http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/24900/24938/mitotic_24938_lg.gif.

[3] (2004). ClipArt ETC: Free Educational Illustrations for Classroom Use. Retrieved March 30, 2015, from http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/.

[4] Retrieved from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Moon_phases_00.jpg.

[5] National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) – Public Domain Image

[6] Courtesy: National Science Foundation

[7] Photo by Shawna Wiebusch



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