As I write this I am somewhat hesitant. You see, I am the kind of person that usually keeps to myself and doesn’t make waves. I don’t like for anyone to feel bad. So I tend to try to choose my words carefully, though I don’t always succeed. I write the following not as an indictment of anyone but more of a suggestion at looking how we write and publish content. I’m looking to start a dialogue so other genealogists can share suggestions for how they have dealt with this issue.
Many of us remind our audiences of the importance of citing our sources, but we usually mean to say “cite your sources when you research your family tree.” There are books about source citations, online guides, and computer programs to help you properly cite sources when you research and write up your results. But what about when you produce presentation handouts, newsletter articles, blog content and such?
It’s no surprise that when you have a semi public persona, people are going to ‘lift’ your intellectual property. That’s the risk that one runs when you post content to blogs, websites and social networking sites. Some of my fellow geneabloggers have posted warnings about blogs that steal content. Usually these are blogs that are, for lack of a better understanding on my part, robotic in that they are mining for data that they can post and take credit for. These warnings are done so that we can protect our intellectual property.
But it is in the last few months that I and some of my fellow members in the Southern California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (SCCAPG) have noticed another type of plagiarism. Plagiarism that involves other genealogists, authors and societies taking from the work of a fellow genealogist and passing it off as their own.
For clarification sakes, what is plagiarism? Two definitions that can be found by googling the phrase, “define: plagiarism” are:
a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work
the act of plagiarizing; taking someone's words or ideas as if they were your own
Three of our SCCAPG members have had such recent experiences as having handouts, blog postings, articles and presentations copied without permission.
Now, there is no doubt in my mind that we all write on similar topics within genealogy-it’s bound to happen that an article you may write might be the same topic that a fellow blogger wrote about a month ago. We all have varying genealogical interests and we all have different points of view. I like to see what other bloggers/ presenters have to say about topics I have written or presented on. I like to see someone else’s different point of view.
That’s not what I am addressing here. I am talking about when your content is copied either verbatim or with just a few words modified. In some cases it may not be plagiarism but, permission still needs to be give. I have had situations where societies have taken articles I wrote, did give me credit, and published them in their newsletter. I don’t mind societies, association and others using my work when they credit me, but in some situations because of publishing contracts, I did not own the rights for that work to be reprinted. So the group was not so much infringing on my right as they were my publisher. Something they did not know-because they did not ask.
The California State Genealogical Alliance Newsletter (Vol. 27, Number 5 September-October 2009) has a front page article by Cath Madden Trindle on Plagiarism this month. Cath’s article, Notes on Plagiarism, states,
“In the educational world, plagiarism is considered to be academic fraud which can lead to censure for professors and researchers and anything from no credit to an assignment or loss of class credit to expulsion for students. In the journalistic world a reporter might be suspended or fired if he is found guilty of plagiarism.
The genealogical world seldom sees such repercussions. Only in particularly flagrant cases do we see censure for the use of another’s research.”
Cath goes on with an example of using other people’s family trees posted online, but I think her point could also be applied to other genealogical writings.
I’m not writing this to point the finger at anyone, I’m merely writing it as a suggestion. As we publish our thoughts, research and other content for the world to see, we need to cite our sources. Citing sources isn’t just for our family history research it’s for our writings also. It’s not just a matter of being professional; it’s a matter of respect.
At SCCAPG we are working on some remedies in the form of a position paper and recommendations for other genealogists. I would welcome your thoughts on this topic so that we may assist the entire genealogical community.