Select Page

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).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email