Restoring Ethics to Genealogy
By Barbara A. Brown, babrown@fast.net

Reprinted from IIGS™ Newsletter - April 1999 by permission

Editor's note: Last year IIGS™ member Barbara A. Brown granted permission for the IIGS™ Newsletter to reprint "I Want," her humor piece on genealogy, in its August 1998 issue. Not long after it appeared in the newsletter, "I Want" was reprinted, without Barbara's or IIGS™' permission, on a couple of mail lists. Since then, Barbara has kept a running tab on how many times (and in what shape or form) her article appears in other publications without permission. According to Barbara, at last count, the article had been "posted to 56 maillists, a number of newsgroups, and at least five ( printed ) newsletters for genealogical societies. In most of those instances, the article appeared without attribution. In some astounding examples, other people claimed authorship, and some even made changes - to add their own list of names they were searching for."

Barbara's experience, in this case, with plagiarism and copyright infringement is disturbing for a couple of reasons. The Internet has given rise to innumerable cases of both. In online genealogy circles, plagiarism and copyright infringement represent just one edge of a two-edged sword. The other edge of the sword is the proliferation of undocumented, and even false, genealogies.

An experienced online genealogist, Barbara shares in this article some of the perils of online genealogy. She also calls for a return to responsible and ethical genealogy.

Facts, evidence, hearsay. Credibility, assumptions, documentation, citations. Primary sources, conclusions, proof.

There are a number of publications, many available via the Internet, which instruct you how to be a Responsible Genealogist.

Most of them miss the salient point.

To be a Responsible Genealogist requires more than a copy of William Strunk's "Elements of Style" or Elizabeth Shown Mills' "Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian."

To be a Responsible Genealogist is to be honorable, fair, and truthful, to show respect for your ancestors by presenting a true and complete picture of their existence, to be fair to your fellow genealogists by acknowledging their contributions to your research, and to be relentless in your pursuit of factual data and in the search for the truth.

If you believe that you can find a true and complete lineage on some Magic URL, then you have merely been a victim of The Internet Curse.

Much of the genealogical information you find online is strictly secondary or worse. Online information may provide you with clues to be checked out - or it might send you off on a wild goose chase. What's worse is that believing this information may prevent you from ever producing a credible, verifiable and honest genealogy. It's a disservice to your ancestors to perpetuate inaccurate information casually found.

It is germane - and past time - to warn others of the perils of Internet genealogy.

I am saddened and alarmed to see the number of people who somehow believe that, if it appears on the internet in any form, it is "public domain" - and true - and ripe for picking.

I have made a particular study of a Southern family, and have amassed a large database, giving full credit to others who have contributed, and which I used to share with everyone who expressed an interest. I have, in the past several years, received email from people who are researching this family, and they include as part of their "research" whole sections which are undoubtedly mine. My notes or my particular spelling of a name, for example, provide clues that the information has been lifted. When I ask them where they got this information, the answer is always a vague "somewhere on the Net." No one has made any attempt to verify or to add to what I wrote, no one has made any attempt to give credit for what they are now claiming as their own, and no one apparently cares.

There is a contributory site where people upload various bits of information they have abstracted and transcribed. The webmaster of the site has been fighting for months to disallow "contributions" from people who photocopy and scan published lists, or those who have merely copied lists wholesale from other sites. Amazingly, those people defend such plagiarism by misquoting copyright rules - "it is information - and therefore it is in the public domain, and it is permissible to publish it online it as long as you display it in another format."

The advent of GEDCOMS and family histories on CD-ROM or on the various paid sites has given rise to the mistaken assumption that anything published on the Internet is true and valid as a "source." I have had some memorable conversations on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) where a genealogist of a few months' experience proudly claims to have researched back to the 1200s - and "everything is sourced." It turns out that all of those sources came from "World Family Tree" CD's and the "research" consisted of finding someone else's ancestry and adopting it. I have chatted with others who have managed to find every instance of their surname on the net, yet mysteriously have been unable to find a single one of the myriad sites which provide genealogy how-to instructions. An incredible number of people have "completed" an entire family - without ever once seeing a census, or a will, a birth certificate, or a parish register.

One family website consists exclusively of data scanned in from one source - a book which was long ago derided by professional genealogists as badly flawed. No mention is made of the fact that the source for all of the information contained therein was one book - and certainly no mention is made of the fact that the various "Revolutionary War Soldiers" have been erroneously given service records.

I have seen hundreds of people whose main source of "research" is a county history book which, of course, was written by contributors eager to glorify their ancestors. Too often, little factual information existed to support any of their claims.

One Southern example contains some egregious errors, which people dutifully copy and accept as truth. When I point out that, within the data included in their ancestry, is a family where the mother died nine years before the first child was born, they angrily inform me that the "History of XXX County" declares this to be true.

Astoundingly, there are similar books now in the works - and people are eagerly contributing their incomplete and unproven research to these.

The Internet is a wondrous place, but it is patently not a place for serious genealogical research to be conducted.

It is vitally important for all who know something about genealogical research to continue to unpopularly rail against the overwhelming tide of poor or dishonest research and to continue to attempt to reach and teach those who will listen.

More information: Copyright and genealogy.


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