First, Do No Harm: Navigating the Ethics of Sharing Intellectual Property in Student-Generated Open Works

Chapter image for First, Do No Harm: Navigating the Ethics of Sharing Intellectual Property in Student-Generated Open Works.
Authored by

Karla Panchuk

Asking students to contribute their work to an open collection sends a very different message than having them complete a “throw-away” assignment that they’ll never use or look at again. It says that their work has value. The collection they build might be an essential resource for those without access to commercial materials. It can be a resource for others to build on. It might be a unique treasure trove of artifacts created by thoughtful individuals based on meaningful personal experiences.

Contributing to open works ultimately means sharing one’s work with a generous spirit.  A popular license for open works—Creative Commons By (CC BY)—gives permission for anyone to use it however they like (distribute, modify, sell, etc.), as long as they give credit to the originator. This allows for maximum flexibility while still ensuring that people get credit for their efforts.

This sounds perfect, right? How could it possibly be wrong to engage students in projects that emphasize the value of their work, and optimize the extent to which others can benefit from it?

One complication is in the power imbalance between the students who will be sharing their work, and the instructors who are asking them to do so. Are students required to share? If they aren’t required, do they nevertheless feel that they will be penalized in some way for not sharing?

This might seem a nitpicking point, but that changes once we begin to consider the context of students’ decisions about relinquishing control of their intellectual property.

Students who have experiences of colonialism will already have felt the consequences of having others taking over control of their belongings—whether physical belongings, intellectual, cultural or even their very bodies—on the grounds that those others know better how such things should be used.

In the case of traditional Indigenous knowledge, the issue is not simply usage that might fall under the category of cultural appropriation, but an approach to knowledge sharing that is fundamentally different from the “free to everyone, for any purpose” approach of OER.  For example, Traditional Knowledge labels developed as part of the Local Contexts project flag knowledge that is meant to be secret, that may be meant only for women or only for men, or that may only be shared at a particular time of year.

Respecting those constraints on the sharing of traditional knowledge is not just a nice thing to do. It falls within the framework of Indigenous data sovereignty—”the right of Indigenous peoples to govern the collection, ownership, and application of data about Indigenous communities, peoples, lands, and resources”—and is thus among the collective rights addressed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP; Raine et al., 2019).

Case Study: Show Me Earth Science

Source: Karla Panchuk (2020) CC BY-NC-SA

Thinking about how to get this right was a major part of the design of Show Me Earth Science, a publicly-available Creative Commons resource created by students for students as part of my Earth science course. For this project, students created resources to go with a video that interested them. In designing this activity, I thought a lot about whether students should be required to share their work in the resource, and if they did share, under what conditions.

I concluded that that students should not be “voluntold” to share their work for this project. Furthermore, I made a concerted effort to emphasize throughout the course that sharing was by opt-in, and treated the decision to share or not as an almost-sacred right. I did this in discussions during class meetings, and by creating an opt-in survey in which students could also indicate that they did not want to share their work, even though that was the default and therefore unnecessary. Also, if they opted in, the were welcome to change their mind later.

Students were further permitted to select from a subset of Creative Commons licenses, primarily: CC BY, CC BY-SA, or CC BY-NC-SA. Explaining students’ license options, and being sure that students understood them, was integral to ensuring that they were sharing their intellectual property willingly—agreeing to the “how” is just as important as agreeing to the “if.”

A final consideration was ensuring that if students did share, the name that was used for attribution purposes was their own choice. The survey included space for the student to give a name or alias other than the one on their official records.

I did my level best to emphasize that not sharing was as good and proper a decision to make as the alternative.

When given a choice—both of whether to share and how to do so—the majority chose not to. A few went so far as to do the survey and choose the redundant opt-out selection.

Is It Really That Big of a Deal?

There is a clear case to be made for addressing the harms of colonialism when designing projects with student contributions, but that isn’t the only possible scenario where unintended harms may result. To explore these possibilities, use the resource below to generate your own prompt for writing or discussion.

Start by choosing a lens. The blue buttons contain additional hints for how to look through that lens. Next, advance to the next slide to pick a scenario to consider through your chosen lens. After you’ve chosen a scenario, click the blue button to find out additional relevant information.

Once you have considered the issues highlighted in the scenarios above from the perspective of learning design, think about how you might address issues of safety and ethics in your own practice of engaging students in the development of OER. Write a short reflective post and/or share a learning design and explain your reasoning.


Rainie, S., Kukutai, T., Walter, M., Figueroa-Rodriguez, O., Walker, J., & Axelsson, P. (2019) Issues in Open Data – Indigenous Data Sovereignty. In T. Davies, S. Walker, M. Rubinstein, & F. Perini (Eds.), The State of Open Data: Histories and Horizons. Cape Town and Ottawa: African Minds and International Development Research Centre. Print version DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2677801 URL:

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