Friday, October 16, 2009

Plagiarism in the Genealogy Community

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.


Thomas MacEntee said...

Very well said Gena and I agree that while we all push genealogists - especially newcomers - to cite their sources, we also need to stress the issues of plagiarism and copyright.

As I've started doing presentations, one of my first slides is entitled "Before We Begin" and it states:

- turning of cell phones etc.
- no recording (audio or video) of my session
- no reproduction of my handouts

I also make sure that I have a copyright statement in the footer of each page of the handout. I hate to give up so much room, but it is necessary.

Question: have you confronted any of the "offenders"? What was the reaction? Did you send a basic "cease and desist" type email? It might be helpful for readers if you could post a generic message to send when you find someone has copied your work.

footnoteMaven said...


When I use LOC photographs I alter them so that I will immediately know if they have been used. I have found that they are being taken from my blog rather than the person going to the LOC and doing the research themselves. Really bad form.

There is a wonderful book I recommend called "The Little Book of Plagiarism," by Richard A. Posner U.S. 7th Cir. Ct. of App. An excellent read. You don't have to be a lawyer.

On Shades I have posted the following:

Shades Of The Departed includes a variety of materials created by different members of the blogging and non-blogging community. Although these works may be freely accessible on the World Wide Web and may not include any statement about copyright, the U.S. Copyright Act nevertheless provides that such works are protected by copyright. Visitors must assume that all works are protected by copyright until they learn otherwise.

Shades and its contributors would like visitors to make productive use of materials found on this blog, particularly if the uses are for nonprofit educational and genealogical purposes. Unless rights of use are clearly stated with respect to an individual item, users must seek permission from the copyright owner for all uses that are not allowed by fair use or other provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act. The copyright owner of a work is listed on the individual posts/articles, please contact the owner of that article for permission to use their work.

I am hoping this isn't a trend, but rather a lack of education.


Geolover said...

Well said, Gena, but I was hoping for an example.

One from my own experience is when a cousin's spouse posted what I had sent her as hard-copy on a web site that had a policy (agreed to implicitly by submitters) of itself copyrighting all submitted material. For sale on CDs. My genealogical write-up on a large family group was posted verbatim.

I pointed out to the submitter that this material was plainly copyrighted by me in the copy sent to her, and reproduced without permission or even acknowledgment of source. She said facts were not copyrightable and to see her lawyer, and did not understand the difference between posting names, dates, etc. and the entire narrative within which I explained the context and significance of the records.

That material is still being lifted and passed along by others who have no idea where it is from.

Mel said...

Well said! I have been involved in a couple different situations. One involved a well known website that used a couple of my instructional articles without permission and without given me credit. You have to vigilant in this area. Many folks believe because something is on the web it's free to use.

I have also found research that I've done appear in databases, websites, and indexes that I did not submit them to. I am sure the researchers thought they were being helpful, but it is frustrating to spend years researching a family only to find someone else freely giving your data away without acknowledging you as the person who did all the research.

One suggestion I would make is anytime a person accepts a GEDCOM and imports it to a database, make sure to add the universal source "Research Compiled by..." and the person who created the GEDCOM's name. Not only does this give credit where credit is due, it helps you later when you try to remember just how you knew John married Sally when you don't have a source for the marriage.

tami osmer glatz said...

One good thing to do that a lot of geneabloggers already do, is set up a Google Alert on your name. I've been surprised where my blog postings and lecture handouts have shown up. Most recently is a new website called YellowDocuments that crawls the web for PDFs and indexes and posts them without asking any permissions.