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Digital Literacy FAQ

Using the Internet to Research Topics

Q: How do I choose a topic for my paper?

A: That's a big question. For a few practical ideas to help you get started, please see the Identifying a Topic section.

Q: I’m looking for general books and articles on a particular subject. Where do I start?

A: See Finding Information in the Library.

Q: How do I find a particular book?

A: Search the library catalog or Ask a Librarian. Learn more by going to Finding and Evaluating Sources.

Q: How do I find an article if it’s not in the database in full text?

A: For information about locating materials, please see Finding and Evaluating Sources.

Q: How do I find an article I saw listed in a bibliography?

A: See Finding and Evaluating Sources.

Q: How do I get the full text of an article?

A: There are several ways to get to full-text articles. Please see Getting Material for more information.

Q: How do I get a book if Cornell doesn’t have it?

A: Through the library's interlibrary loan and other borrowing services (for example, Borrow Direct), you can get almost anything from anywhere without charge. In addition, the library is involved in a number of initiatives to make more articles and research available online for free.

Q: What makes an article “scholarly”?

A: See Evaluating Sources.

Q: What does it mean to say that an article is “peer-reviewed” or “refereed”?

A: See Evaluating Sources.

Q: What’s the difference between “primary” and “secondary” research?

A: See Evaluating Sources.

Internet Privacy

Q: Can employers or university administrators legally prosecute me for material that appears in my Facebook profile?

The answer to that question depends on what that material is! But first off, “prosecution” is a term usually reserved for criminal law, and only the state is allowed to engage in those kinds of legal actions. A narrow type of language might, under extreme circumstances―such as where it were used to incite imminent violence, and where it were therefore likely to be coupled with illegal activities―fall outside of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. But, on the whole, it would be a rare event indeed for anyone to be prosecuted for speech alone.

Leaving prosecution aside, then, whether employers could sue you in civil court for statements you made about them is an entirely different matter. If you libel a company or institution, legal action is an option for it, if it claims you have made false statements that have injured it. So, for example, if you said that Company X secretly practices satanic rituals―or even said something less outrageous such as claiming that a law firm is a money-laundering front for an organized-crime syndicate―and it isn’t true, and especially if you have reason to believe it isn’t true, then you might be liable for defamation or libel. On the other hand, if you believe what you are considering saying is true, and have evidence of that reasonable belief, and then make the revelatory statement―and especially if your statement turns out actually to be true―then you have a defense against Company X’s claim. The same, by the way, holds for statements made about individuals, who also have the right to bring defamation and libel actions against other individuals.

Another facet of this kind of question revolves around whether a school can bring a policy-violation action for, say, alcohol abuse, based on a photograph posted to a social-networking or some other kind of site. The answer depends on a lot of particular facts, such as the kind of school, its code, and the nature of the violation. Taking the example of alcohol, some schools may regard any kind of image that suggests alcohol consumption to be a violation of rules against unbecoming behavior, to the point where even if the “alcohol” is colored water and the inebriated appearance a dramatization, the image alone may be actionable in their eyes. Sometimes, associations or groups on a campus, such as an athletic team, may take a stand on matters like these, especially if, overall, the institution interprets its code of conduct more liberally than that team does. Or, to consider another kind of example, if firearms are prohibited on campus, and you displayed an image of yourself holding a gun that was verifiably real (and not an imitation, such as Airsoft© with an orange tip) and the surroundings in the image clearly indicated an on-campus position, one could imagine at least being asked by the campus police or judicial administration for an explanation, and for evidence of that explanation―for example, in the event that you claimed that the image was a composite of two separate photographs, one of yourself off campus with a real gun, and another of an on-campus location serving only as a backdrop.

All of these examples demonstrate the most important point: it isn’t whether the school or employer can prosecute you, but that the images that you post online are visible to outsiders, many of whom may not be in on the joke you saw in your pictures, or appreciate it if they were, especially if it presents other people in a derogatory manner. By the same token, if “outsiders” like your employer or your school find the behavior in the scenes you post adverse to their conception of how their employees or students should comport themselves, then they may decide to take action against you. To be sure, employers or institutions that make it a practice of viewing Facebook or MySpace profiles of individuals who seek or hold employment in their firms or seek or have been granted admission to their schools should be prepared to take late-adolescent or collegiate developmental stages, as well as humor and spoofing, into consideration when viewing a profile. But because there are no guarantees that they will, students should be realistically cautious about the presence they create online, because the whole rest of the unpredictable world can see them and judge them for what they see, not just today, but also tomorrow. For these reasons, you should at the very least determine whether security settings on the sites you use provide sufficient privacy—otherwise, better judgment about posting some photographs or statements should prevail.

Finally, Cornell University takes both its Code of Conduct and its philosophy of “freedom with responsibility” very seriously. Students alleged to have violated the Code will face adjudication, and a steady diet of openly accessible photographs of the individual engaged in the allegedly violating behavior could be used as circumstantial evidence in those proceedings, along with the statements of university officials, other students, and even residence-hall staff, where relevant. However, Cornell University does not engage in proscriptive profiling of individual students, just as it does not read students’ e-mail or scan the content of computer hard drives attached to its network. Cornell accords its students appropriate degrees of privacy as part of its commitment to fostering and maintaining the environment young adults require in the interests of their own development. And it is a mark of maturity when students learn to use that privacy and freedom wisely.

For more thoughts on social-networking posts, please see: Thoughts on Facebook

Q: How long does information last on the Internet?

The answer to that question depends on what one means by the “Internet.” On the one hand, there is an organization called the Internet Archive, and its Way Back Machine preserves virtually anything and everything that has ever been on the Internet http://www.archive.org/index.php. If that’s the Internet, then what you post for a single day could last forever. Similarly, search engines, such as Google, cache pages in such a way that even if those pages are taken off their servers, they may still be available in that search engine’s archives. (For information on how to contact Google to have pages removed, please see Google’s Privacy questions / Removing information from Google's search results page, as well as removal information for webmasters.)

On the other hand, as a general rule, it is only for so long as something is on a server that it is openly available on the Internet. Therefore, the first line of defense if you want your material off of the Internet is to take it off of the server, or at least to protect the page through authentication or some other technical means. Alternatively, to avoid being picked up by search engines, pages still on the servers can be coded so as not to accept the automated crawlers that make them accessible through search engines on the Web.

Privacy law in the United States is not strong in comparison with similar laws in other developed countries, in part because of the influence of strong commercial interests on our nation’s economic policy, an influence embedded in the foundations of our constitutionally protected speech. At the same time, privacy has lately become a theme of greater concern to the public, mainly due to the expanding information-technological capabilities that enable individuals and groups to mine data and recombine them for the purposes of advertisement and marketing. Identity theft, perhaps more than any other single issue, has also brought the vulnerability of personally identifiable information to public attention: namely, the availability for fraudulent use of personal information such as financial records (name and driver’s license, social security number, credit-card or bank-routing numbers) and medical and educational records that cannot normally be disclosed without the consent of the identified or some expression of the force of law, such as a subpoena. Entities that either intentionally or inadvertently disclose such information, for example, on a Web site, not only are required to remove that information upon request, but might also have the responsibility to inform you of the breach (depending on state law).

Finally, if one wants unprotected forms of information removed from a site controlled by another entity, a formal letter of request is a good beginning step; sometimes just explaining that the material is unbecoming or embarrassing might be enough to persuade a sensitive person with decision-making power at a company or Web site to respond respectfully to your request. Legal action is always an option, but often of last resort, and only if there is a reasonable legal claim, such as defamation or libel, invasion of privacy, or some other tort on which to base the action.

Copyright Law and Plagiarism

Q: Do I have to cite the source of this information if I use it in my paper?

A: For information about how and when to cite sources, please see Using and Citing Sources Responsibly.

Q: I found this image on Google Images and want to use it in my classroom presentation. Can I use it?

A: Hard to answer! An analysis with regard to fair use would be the basic rubric you would need to use to determine if you could, adding “transformative use” considerations to the existing four factors that obtain in the law: nature of the medium, intended use of the work, amount, market impact. Also, both the traditional copyright law and now the TEACH Act create some exceptions for face-to-face classroom settings as well as for distributed-learning environments, which can be applied to the analysis as well as the fair use doctrine.

However, a quick-and-dirty answer to your question is yes for a classroom presentation, but no for posting openly on the Internet or for any other form of reproduction or publication.

Q: I love this song by the group Nickelback. Can I use it in my video?

A: The analysis that one would use for this case is the same as that noted above, although the obviously high commercial value of popular music, combined with the fact that you would be embedding the song in another tangible medium, suggest that the safest approach would be to use only a part of the song and not the whole thing.

Q: This picture says it’s licensed via Creative Commons. What’s that?

A: Creative Commons is an organization with which authors and artists can list their work, making it available for a variety of other uses that would otherwise be restricted under ordinary copyright law. Artists can choose from a bundle of rights in copyright law (copyright, attribution, protection period, noncommercial purposes, and so on) to state how and in what ways they are willing to have others use their works. Likewise, people looking to use less-restricted material can find it available for use on the Creative Commons Web site: http://creativecommons.org/.

Q: What happens when a student is accused of plagiarism?

A: Everything that anyone would want to know about Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity can be found at the following site: http://www.cuinfo.cornell.edu/Academic/AIC.html.

Q: What is the difference between copyright and plagiarism?

A: A full exploration of the answer to this question can be found on the page in this Web site entitled Plagiarism, but as a quick answer, remember three points:

  1. Copyright is the law, and plagiarism is an academic policy
  2. Citing a source may satisfy academic rules for plagiarism, but will not excuse a copyright infringement
  3. Both copyright and plagiarism have tricky rules about how much or what kind of use one can make of another work. Caution dictates that if you are unsure, or don’t have a good feeling about your use of someone else’s work, you must consult a trusted source or ask someone―a faculty member, a reference librarian, or an attorney―to help you!