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Graduate Research: Research Ethics

This guide provides resources for graduate students in the midst of thesis or dissertation work here at Florida Tech. Here you will find strategies, best practices, and resources to help with all phases of your research.

Information Ethics

Using Information Ethically


No matter its format, when scholars have posed unique questions or problems and performed the research to answer those questions, their tangible intellectual works, whether published or unpublished, are protected by copyright.

Academics rely on the works of others to complete their own, new research, and copyright ensures that authors' works are used fairly and ethically. Understanding the laws and rules surrounding reuse of information is quite important to the academic community that relies on the vast body of work for continued research.

Obtaining Data Ethically

When doing research involving humans, remember that you will need to obtain approval from your university's institutional review board. Here is FIT's IRB site.

Public Domain & Creative Commons

Uncopyrighted works are considered to be in the public domain and can be fully used by anyone without permission. Which kinds of intellectual property are uncopyrighted? In the US, this list includes the following:

  • Works for which copyright has expired.
  • Common idioms of the English language, though these may be protected by trademark law.
  • Facts, theories, and ideas (though the tangible expressions of these could be copyrighted).
  • US government works, including laws, speeches made by federal employees, and publications.

Again, even though you may have permission to use information in the public domain without asking for permission to do so, you must always attribute other authors whose works you use to support your own.

Creative Commons allows content creators to license their works so that other people can reuse them, while retaining their copyrights. Depending on the license chosen, others may use all or some of the work, may "remix" it to make a new product, or may be able to use it for commercial as well as educational purposes. Creative Commons licenses give creators more freedom to share their works than traditional copyright, and give users - including academics - the freedom to reuse them ethically. 


Copyright Around the World

Almost every country has its own set of rules designed to protect the intellectual property of content creators. There are several international treaties designed to standardize copyrights, one of which is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works established in 1886 by the United Nations' World International Property Organization (WIPO). The Berne Convention determines minimum automatic protections for works created in any of the convention's 167 member countries. These countries often provide rights beyond the limits of those provided by the convention to content creators.

According to the Berne Convention, a work is created when it is fixed in a tangible format (paper, film, phonorecord, or microchip, among others), and creators automatically own the copyright to those works. Duration of copyright varies, but the minimum provided by the Berne Convention is the life of the author plus 50 years after death. In the US that number is 70 years after death, but many factors affect duration of copyright.

Title 17 of the US Code gives copyright owners the right to copy, distribute, and display their intellectual property, but often those rights are transferred as part of the publishing process. When authors consider journals for potential publication of their articles, they must be aware of the publisher's guidelines regarding copyright. SHERPA/RoMEO makes many publisher and journal guidelines available online in a searchable format, and many publisher websites include Author's Rights sections.

Most publishers reserve some rights, including the right for authors to post copies of their own works. Others allow authors to post preprint PDFs or to publish their articles with an open access license (identical to the Creative Commons Attribution License). These licenses allow authors more freedom to copy, distribute, and display their work as long as the original author is credited.

Copyright can be a complicated issue, but there are several mechanisms that make it possible for academics to use other authors' research to support their own, and all within the guidelines of ethical use. 

Fair Use

Fair Use

Most countries impose limitations on copyrights for the purposes of fair use. In the United States, Section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act allows others to use copyrighted works under certain conditions, including for "criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research." This is what enables scholars to use portions of other authors' works to support their own without requesting permission. 

Four factors are considered when determining whether a use is fair or not:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Fair use is not always easy to determine, but generally, citing small portions (no standard limit is defined) of an article or other work in scholarly writing or research papers is considered fair. Several tools do exist to help you, including a Copyright Research Guide from Florida Tech (most university libraries have similar guides) and a Fair Use Evaluator from the American Library Association.

This 2012 video from Copyright Clearance Center focuses on copyrights in the context of academic uses. Though fair use is mentioned, you will notice that this organization advocates requesting permission from content owners, whether the information is being used within the guidelines of fair use or not. 

Be careful not to assume that the privileges provided by fair use exempt scholars from crediting the creators of copyrighted works. Always, the original information must be properly cited, whether copyrighted or not.

Citations Made Easy with Citation Managers

Citation managers make citing your sources easier.  A citation manager is a software application that allows you to:

  • Import/export citations (references) from library databases and the Internet.
  • Store and organize your citations (references).
  • Format citations (references) and generate bibliographies quickly in a variety of styles (MLA, APA, IEEE, Chicago, etc.).
  • Share citations with collegues on campus and around the world.

Citation managers at Evans Library are: RefWorks,  EndNote basic from Web of Science

Citation managers freely available on the WebMENDELEY (, zotero (