The ethical genealogist

A matter of right and wrong

Yesterday on Facebook, noted genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills noted with no small amount of dismay a published report that the work product of students enrolled in free online courses showed numerous instances of plagiarism.1

The report, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, explained that some of the students themselves had reported “dozens of incidents of plagiarism, even though the courses bear no academic credit” and that one professor had “posted a plea to his 39,000 students to stop plagiarizing.”2

Now it has been (mumble mumble) years since The Legal Genealogist has been in a classroom as anything other than the teacher in the front. It’s pretty easy to sit back, as someone far removed from the travails of student days, give a shake of the head and murmur, “Kids these days….”

And yet… and yet… there’s just that niggling nagging little voice in the back of my mind… that tiny little voice that can be heard each and every time I sit down to do genealogical research… that insistent not-to-be-ignored voice that wants to know one thing, over and over and over.

Am I giving proper credit in my own research projects
to the contributions made by the work of others?

There are those moments — we’ve all had them — when we’re sitting there at the computer, and we come across that little snippet someone else wrote that perfectly captures the point we need to make. And what do we do? Just exactly what those students do — we copy what’s online and we paste it into our notes or our databases, and we move on without a thought — and without carefully noting, right then and there, where that little snippet came from.

And then someday that little snippet goes out — in an email to family, in a blog post, in an article on the family, in a book of family history. And it goes out looking like it was our work, like we wrote it.

It’s not likely to be a violation of the law. Copyright doesn’t usually step in to protect a few words or a few sentences, sometimes not even a few paragraphs.3 And what’s the harm anyway? After all, it’s our family history and we’re not really taking anything, we’re just sharing, aren’t we?


Copying those snippets without giving credit to the original author is exactly what that article was talking about. It’s not sharing; it’s plagiarizing someone else’s work.

It’s something professional genealogists all expressly pledge to avoid. As a Certified GenealogistSM, I have pledged that:

• I will not represent as my own the work of another. …
• … In citing another’s work, I will give proper credit.4

As a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists, I have agreed to “fully and accurately cite references; and … (g)ive proper credit to those who supply information and provide assistance.”5

And all I have to do to stay on the straight and narrow here?

Cite my sources. I need, always, to write down who wrote it, where and when, what form it was in when I saw it, and when and where I saw it.

There are tons of other good reasons to cite sources when we research. To name a few:

 • We may need to consult the material again later and need to be able to find it quickly and easily.

• We need to be able to evaluate the information in the source and to do that we need to know where the information came from, who said it, when, under what circumstances, and how it came to be recorded and kept.

• We want others to be able to double-check our conclusions and either confirm what we’ve found or steer us back on track if we’re going off on a tangent.

And there’s that other reason, too — the Golden Rule reason. When I’ve done a particularly good piece of work, I’d like to get credit for it. And I sure can’t expect others to give me credit for my work if I don’t give them credit for theirs.

Overall, it’s a matter of right and wrong. And with full and proper citations, I’m committed to staying in the right.

Join me?


  1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Facebook link share, posted 20 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 20 Aug 2012).
  2. Jeffrey R. Young, “Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera’s Free Online Courses,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, online edition, posted 16 Aug 2012 ( : accessed 20 Aug 2012).
  3. But see Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), where copying fewer than 500 words of a 600-page autobiography was held to be copyright infringement.
  4. Code of Ethics and Conduct,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 20 Aug 2012). This code is also followed by Accredited Genealogists pursuant to the Professional Ethics Agreements of the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists.
  5. Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 20 Aug 2012).
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20 Responses to The ethical genealogist

  1. Some suggestions that seem like a time sink turn out to be really helpful. Your suggestion here is one of those. A while ago I started writing proper citations instead of just saving the URL when I snag something from a book or online source. Forcing myself to do this immediately has saved time later when writing or creating handouts.

    Now I wish all my paper books, handouts, and my mind were searchable on my computer, too. While writing an article recently I thought of what seemed like a great analogy. I couldn’t remember if I had heard a similar analogy in a class or seen it in an article. An intensive Google search and scanning of handouts turned up nothing. I need a way to search my memory and find everything I have ever heard or read! Real “total recall” would be useful.

  2. Tessa Keough says:

    Excellent post! Often we so enjoy the genealogy hunt that we forget to cite our sources at the time we locate our find. We need to slow down (or better yet STOP) and check out the source, write it up (so easy these days with the wealth of sites that help you draft your footnote as do our genealogy programs), and then put it with the information or data we found. At first it is a bit of a chore but after a short time, it becomes second nature.

    I would also suggest that every genealogist spend the time NOW and go back through their master source list and clean it up (we can make it a fall cleaning challenge!). I was lucky when I decided to clean up and reorganize my master source list – I only had about 200 sources (I was a newbie to genealogy who attended 2 genealogy conferences and learned early on from Paula Stuart Warren, Josh Taylor, John Philip Colletta, and Elizabeth Shown Mills). Once I cleaned up my master sources and made notes for myself on consistent data entry for master sources, I have kept it up.

    Our work is important to us. We should give it the attention and professionalism it deserves in all aspects – the search, the analysis, the sources, the write up, and the sharing. Thanks for reminding us that we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we expect of others. Another brilliant post.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      We all made that mistake originally, Tessa — not writing down the info at the time. Boy I sure know I did… and I’m paying the price, as you did, in cleaning up the master source list.

      • mary schacht says:

        Some historical records are not public domain. The UK retains CROWN copyright. I obtained proper permision to research and publish if I made the record texts in sentence form (my work product)and give them credit. I interviewed descendants and obtained documents such as land rentals, doctor records, family bible pages. I published my work but several published my conclusions without sources or credit, violating my trust as well as my copyright. Why are copyright and morals discused more? records are not facts until we work hard to prove a hypothesis fact. My work took 40 years, and minutes for a dozen people to copy, and add errors. I give source notations for 23 archives, no one copies them, and the error filled copies cheapen my hard work.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I certainly sympathize with your concerns and your anger, Mary. It’s one of the reasons why the entire geneaological community needs to be united behind the idea of standards: standards for how we do what we do, including obeying copyright law and not copying someone else’s work without permission (where required) and credit (in all cases).

  3. Annette D Towler says:

    Since purchasing ONENOTE2007 [$$$], each time I do copy a snippet to a OneNote page, I get the url along with other information, like the date, and then I add my own notes. Like it better than Evernote [free], which does the same thing. Only in a different format.
    Glad you mentioned this. Just a thought, I wonder if Teachers/College Professors ever really explained the fall out from having no citations/sources, the other side of the story is students are in a hurry, probably saying to themselves it won’t matter… hmmm.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I need to make better use of OneNote, which came as part of my Office suite. Or Evernote. Or something. There are so many tools!

      As for what the teachers and professors tell their students… all I can say is that I can’t imagine how anybody gets to college in the first place without knowing that copying and pasting is plagiarism. But I do understand that students truly don’t “get it” when told that plagiarism is wrong. Their parents copy copyrighted materials. Their friends use peer networks for sharing files. So what’s a little academic copy-and-paste? Particularly when, for years, there have been few consequences for any of the copying.

      • Paula Williams says:

        all I can say is that I can’t imagine how anybody gets to college in the first place without knowing that copying and pasting is plagiarism

        True that… though with the change in focus (standardized tests), eh, don’t get me started..

        peer networks

        I’d love to say that I blame Facebook and Wikipedia and YouTube and… okay, I’ll say it, the Internet. But I also remember our being told at William and Mary that said school had one of the first (if not THE first) honor codes – in its early days, as in, pre-Revolutionary War, so this is far from a new issue.

        I still blame the Internet for plagiarism “explosion” though, as it’s made irresponsibility so darned EASY. Those colonial students and encyclopedia grabbers had to at least expend some energy – now loading a website and a quick “cut and paste” can be done in seconds. Which is, admittedly, what has influenced at least my irresponsible genealogical goofs.

        Wouldn’t trade the internet for anything, though…


        • Judy G. Russell says:

          No question this isn’t a new issue at all. But the extent of it surely is different and, oh yes, you’re so right — the ease of it.

  4. Thank you! I could not agree more. As a college writing teacher myself for (mumble mumble) years, I’ve been inoculated against plagiarism, even against any temptation to do it myself. It’s inherently difficult to write a graceful and clear sentence. So when you take someone else’s sentence and use it as your own, it’s not an accident and it’s not homage — it’s stealing. An original, winning phrase is intellectual property. It’s a person’s “voice.” My colleagues and can always tell when it’s not the student’s own “voice” we are hearing in the prose. I do wonder if all the internet sharing will mix and mute individual voices so that they’re just bits of information. Think of a Shakespeare sonnet . . . oh, well.

  5. Great article!! It’s a great reminder to watch what we are doing online where copying is just so easy that sometimes we don’t even think about it.

    In an on-line class I am taking currently (for credit and NOT for free!) the professor went beyond the standard verbiage in the syllabus regarding academic honesty. She has a separate word doc that has all the rules and with each assignment that is submitted this has to be the first page with your name at the bottom. Guess she doesn’t want anyone to say they didn’t know!

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