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Being nice versus being right

The genealogical community is a small one, as communities go. And, as with any small pond, something that makes waves is going to attract a lot more attention in our community than, say, even the largest-ever-built ocean liner would make churning its way around the oceans of the world.

Which makes it kind of hard, and kind of uncomfortable, when what we want to do, as genealogists, is disagree.

When what we need to be is critical.

In this context, The Legal Genealogist isn’t talking about criticism in the sense of censure or faultfinding, but rather in the broader sense: “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a … work …”1 And about being critical in the sense we can all aspire to: “involving skillful judgment as to truth, merit, etc.”2

CriticismLet’s say, for example, that you’re reading something in this blog. And you happen to have the knowledge and background in the subject being discussed that leads you to believe that I am just plain wrong.

It’s not that I hold a different opinion than you might based on facts on which we both agree. I’m not talking about a case where we’re dealing with the difference between “Andrew Jackson was one of the least effective Presidents!” and “No he wasn’t!”

What I’m talking about here is a case where I’m just wrong. Where, say, I’ve reached an erroneous conclusion or my work just isn’t up to snuff — or it simply doesn’t meet genealogical standards

Now you, as that smarter-than-I-am reader, have essentially two choices. You can ignore the error, stand silent, say nothing. Or you can call me out on it — tell me that I’m wrong.

Which, in this circumstances, is the ethical choice?

To which the only possible answer is, either one is.

There’s no ethical imperative, in genealogy or anywhere else, for every reader of a blog or an article or a journal to alert the author or the editor or the publisher to every error that makes it into print, online or off. If you don’t think a mistake is important enough for you to take the time to comment on it, then you can let it pass and that will have been an ethical choice.

There’s also no ethical prohibition, in genealogy or anywhere else, against any reader of that same blog or article or journal stating the disagreement with that blog or article or journal even in strong terms. If you do think a mistake is important enough for you to take the time to comment on it, then you can state your disagreement and that will have been an ethical choice.

That’s because the ethical rule here is one, necessarily, of flexibility. In the words of the Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists, “To protect the profession, I will act, speak, and write in a manner I believe to be in the best interests of the profession and scholarship of genealogy.”3

So each of us is free to choose, in any given situation, what we will and will not comment on — and remain ethical.

We are charged, of course, with striving for truth, acting honorably, and not publishing or publicizing as fact anything we know to be false. In the words of the Code of Ethics of the Association of Professional Genealogists, we do not “defame the profession (or) individual genealogists”4 — “defame” being a technical legal term connoting “a false statement purporting to be fact.”5

It’s certainly consistent with those goals to speak up, if we choose to, about errors in the facts or the methodology of another researcher.

But remember that the goal of publication is to expose our ideas: to get our facts and our methods and our reasoning out there for all the world to see. And by the very act of publication we’re inviting criticism. Asking others to review the work, take it apart, look for holes and supply information that perhaps we missed or to which we didn’t have access, and in so doing make the work as a whole better and more likely to stand the test of time.

Even here, in this ephemeral online context, my own “Rules of my road” for this blog state simply: “If I’m wrong about a fact, I’d like to know it. … So tell me when you know more than I do or I’ve just plain goofed.”6

There’s also a lot of room for variation in how we speak out when we do choose to do so. Criticism by its very nature can be rough and tumble. Go back and read some of the very best of the movie reviews by Roger Ebert, for example. He called one film “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful.” About another: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”7

No holds barred there.

Most genealogical criticism is somewhat more tempered and temperate — but there’s nothing in any ethics code that says it has to be. We may choose out of courtesy or manners or our own preferences to be delicate and polite — or we may choose to be Roger Ebert.

We’re not required to contact the original researcher or editor or publisher privately — though we may choose to do so, particularly if we want that person’s cooperation in making changes. And we’re not required to respond only in the original medium — if social media is a better platform for us, or an article in a competing journal is our forum of choice, those options are open too.

Yes, surely, there are times when silence is golden. In those cases, standing silent is an ethical choice. But speaking up in criticism of published work — whether a blog post, an article, a journal, a book, whatever — when truthful and factually based — is an equally ethical choice.

Being ethical doesn’t mean being silenced.


  1. ( : accessed 18 Jan 2017), “criticism.”
  2. Ibid., “critical.”
  3. Code of Ethics,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 17 Jan 2017).
  4. Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 17 Jan 2017).
  5. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 17 Jan 2017), “defamation.”
  6. Judy G. Russell, “Rules of my road: 2017,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Jan 2017 ( : accessed 17 Jan 2017).
  7. See Nolan Feeney, “7 of Roger Ebert’s Most Brutal Movie Reviews,” Time, posted 4 July 2014 ( : accessed 17 Jan 2017).
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