Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Where Credit is Due

Why is it that the very group of people who expecteven demandfootnotes for even the most basic mention on a genealogical blog post are quite content to heap scorn upon those who'd like a little credit for the time and expense they've invested in compilation of their own family tree?

Okay, perhaps that's not an entirely fair statement. It may not be the very group. But within that general group identity of genealogists, we can include those among the footnote police and the free-family-tree proponents.

Wouldn't it be more consistent to give credit where credit is due all the time?

Here's my case. Rather than stick with the realm of genealogy, I'll use something a bit more generic to make this more of an academic argument: science.

Suppose a scientist got a brilliant insight into a problem resolution in her field and wanted to test her idea. What would be the process to achieve that?

Remember the scientific methodthat old phrase every elementary school student was obliged to learn? The scientist would begin by formulating a hypothesis, then running that idea through its paces in a step-by-step process ingrained into the scientific community. Within that process would be a review of the literature, a sort if "if then, then that" litany of every discovery leading up to this brilliant insight that was about to be tested.

Within that review of the literature, if the scientist on our hypothetical research team neglected to give credit for any of those first mentions in that litany, she would be remiss in her approach. Even past experiments that contradicted her assumptionsor even failed to demonstrate what she hoped to explorewould be considered to be rightfully included in a thorough review of the literature.

And credited, of course.

Now, let's switch back to a field in which we're a bit more familiar: genealogy. Why is it that, if a professional researcher publishes an article or case study on a specific aspect of genealogy, we expect there to be citations for each fact previously borne out in other researchers' writing, and yet, if an everyday "citizen genealogist" (thank you, Blaine Bettinger, for suggesting that possibility) makes the effort to travel great distances and invest hours or even days poring through microfilms or reading through old probate records to ascertain the true identity of a person previously not linked to a specific family, and then adds that confirmed entry to her family tree, we merely laugh when that researcher becomes incensed if her work has been lifted without any credit?

What is the difference between a scientist formulating a hypothesis, then checking that line of thought via a thoroughand correctly creditedreview of the literature, and an avocational genealogist reviewing the work of other such genealogists to see what would support a genealogical hypothesis? The only difference I can tell is that we, as genealogists, may blithely dismiss the work of others with the tra-la-la of that oft-repeated tune, "genealogies cannot be copyrighted."

If we seek to elevate genealogy to a higher professional standard, wouldn't it make sense to respect the work of others with the same courtesies other professions accord fellow researchers working in their body of knowledge? Yes, a fact may be a fact, but even scientists in other fields will give credit to those who were the first to point out what that fact was.

Why can't we?


  1. Maybe I'm not following the issue accurately, but I wonder if people are confusing the FACT with ANALYSIS of the fact. I understand that nobody owns the family tree; Joe Blow is as much a descendant of Jane Doe as I am. I can't copyright the BMD. However, I should be given credit for my thoughtful analysis of how I know it's THIS Jane and not THAT Jane.

  2. I agree with Wendy. While some data in one of my internet-hosted trees may be unique discoveries on my part, the elements of a document are not copyrightable. It is my written description of analysis, correlation and conclusions that are my own work.

    A tree viewer usually cannot tell what items are new discoveries on my part. I could have copied any of them from a publication or obscure website without giving a source-citation [eccch]. Something may be new to treedom or newly published in (say) a journal, but not hitherto-undiscovered, and in any case it would be my wrote-up or discussion that would be copyrightable.

    For items new to treedom (to the best of my knowledge) that were found by another person, I try diligently to credit the finder right there. Conclusions are not necessarily authored by a finder of documentation.

  3. It's a bit of a sticky wicket. I think Wendy is on the right rail though.

    What might be a bit hard to take is paying for DNA tests and having others "freely take" the results.


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