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
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
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
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.