VIII: Ethics

8.3 Ethical Issues and Intellectual Property

Deborah Bernnard; Greg Bobish; Jenna Hecker; Irina Holden; Allison Hosier; Trudi Jacobson; Tor Loney; Daryl Bullis; Yvonne Bruce; and Kathy Anders

Ethical treatment of information assumes that you are treating an author’s rights appropriately and avoiding an act of academic dishonesty such as plagiarism. As a creator of information yourself, you should understand the importance of respecting other authors’ rights and following the general rules set forth in legal documents.

There are many examples of intellectual property issues that you can find in the media. For example, in June 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the law that had previously allowed gene patenting.[1] It might sound strange, but up until now if you were a scientist who studied the human genome and happened to discover a new gene, under the earlier law, you could patent it, thus assuring that whenever a person needed to have a medical test involving the gene they would have to pay you as a patent holder. These types of tests usually weren’t covered by insurance companies and were very expensive. Challenges to the Supreme Court ruling continued for years, as recently as 2019.[2]

As an information creator, you want to be respectfully treated by others. That is why you should constantly strive to improve your ability to practice fair treatment of other authors’ works, including being cognizant of copyright, patents, and other issues associated with intellectual property.

Academic Integrity

You have already learned about plagiarism, often enemy number one when it comes to academic success involving research and writing. But there are other issues under the larger umbrella of academic dishonesty. First of all, every academic institution has a set of academic regulations that explain what is expected of students. Students are required to make themselves familiar with these rules.

Other examples of dishonesty that are mentioned in academic regulations are multiple submissions (one may not submit one project for two different classes), cheating on examinations, and forgery. The Aggie Honor System Rules state “Misconduct in research or scholarship includes fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, reviewing, or reporting research. It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data.”[3] If you have questions about what practices are, or are not, academically ethical, it is important to ask your professor what is acceptable for a given type of work.

It is imperative to understand that everybody has to be accountable for their own work and respectful of the work of others. Future scholarship depends on the accuracy and integrity of prior scholarship. That is why when doing research one must use the information produced by other people responsibly, i.e. provide citations within the text and a list of references at the end of the paper with full citation information that will allow retrieval of the document. Remember what you have learned in this chapter about managing your sources and citation style. If you are diligent about applying this knowledge and careful about giving credit where credit is due, you should have no worries.

Other Considerations for Using Sources Ethically

Students are often concerned with the details of correct citation—when to include an author’s name in parentheses, how to format an MLA bibliography, how to indicate a quotation within a quotation—and while these are all important and helpful to know, what is more important is understanding the larger ethical principles that guide choosing and using sources. Here are a few of these larger ideas to keep in mind as you select and synthesize your sources:

  • You must represent the topic or discipline you are writing about fairly. If nine out of ten sources agree that evidence shows the middle class in the United States is shrinking, it is unethical to use the tenth source that argues it is growing without acknowledging the minority status of the source.
  • You must represent the individual source fairly. If a source acknowledges that a small segment of the middle class in the United States is growing but most of the middle class is shrinking, it is unethical to suggest that the former is the writer’s main point.
  • You must acknowledge bias in your sources. It is unethical to represent sources that, while they may be credible, offer extreme political views as if these views are mainstream.
  • Just because your source is an informal one, or from Wikipedia, or the dictionary doesn’t mean that you don’t have to acknowledge it. Quoting a dictionary definition is still quoting: you need quotation marks. Wikipedia is not “common knowledge”: cite it.
  • You must summarize and paraphrase in your own words. Changing a few words around in the original and calling it your summary or paraphrase is unethical. How would you feel if you recognized what you worked so hard to write in someone else’s paper? “I changed some words,” they’d say. But you would still recognize your style. Don’t steal someone else’s.

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:

Bernnard, Deborah, Greg Bobish, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier, Trudi Jacobson, Tor Loney, and Daryl Bullis. The Information Literacy User’s Guide: An Open, Online Textbook, edited by Greg Bobish and Trudi Jacobson. Geneseo, NY: Open SUNY Textbooks, Milne Library, 2014. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Archival link:

Bruce, Yvonne. “Using Sources Ethically.” In A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing, by Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel. Cleveland: MSL Academic Endeavors. Accessed July 2019. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Archival link:

  1. Association for Molecular Pathology et al. v. Myriad genetics, Inc. et al. 569 U.S. (2013),
  2. Kelly Servick, “Controversial U.S. Bill Would Lift Supreme Court Ban on Patenting Human Genes,” Science, June 4, 2019,
  3. Aggie Honor System Office, “ Definitions of Academic Misconduct,” Honor System Rules, accessed December 17, 2020,


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8.3 Ethical Issues and Intellectual Property Copyright © 2023 by Deborah Bernnard; Greg Bobish; Jenna Hecker; Irina Holden; Allison Hosier; Trudi Jacobson; Tor Loney; Daryl Bullis; Yvonne Bruce; and Kathy Anders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.