Monday, June 4, 2012

Sharing and Genealogy

As genealogists, we like to share information so that we can further our own research and help others.

In some situations sharing becomes more complicated like when you share and someone else uses your information in a book. Sometimes we want to share (or to, er, correct) and our outreach is ignored.

Sharing is a sticky wicket. When is sharing ok and when has it gone too far? In most cases sharing is a personal preference or an ethical consideration. Sometimes it can damage a reputation but rarely does a case gone bad go further than that.

So I thought I would post today about sharing and open up for discussion about your good experiences and bad experiences with regards to sharing research with distant cousins, colleagues and the press.

In a recent public example, Megan Smolenyak wrote this blog post about her experience sharing her research with a journalist.

In a fascinating turn of events, one of Megan's follower's wrote in response on her Facebook wall about wanting to share information with the author of a then upcoming journal article only to have the conflicting information ignored by the author. How does that reflect on the authenticity and honesty of the later published article?

And of course, we all know the problem of well-intentioned sharing that leads to online proliferation of erroneous information.

So let the discussion begin! Have you had a problem when sharing any of your research? And how involved should the genealogical community be in setting standards or guidelines for something that seems at times to run amiss of common sense?

Photo credit: Photo by Asenat29 and used under the creative commons license.


  1. Marian, I did indeed post a comment on Megan's Facebook about my experiences. Basically what happened was that I had written and published a book about a specific family.

    Another genealogist was in process of writing an article on one member of this same family for a well known and respected journal. She reached out to me and asked me to read her first draft and asked me to offer suggestions or new research materials to add to the article.

    I spent many hours doing more research on her behalf and presented my findings (plus source citations) to her. However much of what I'd found was was contradicted her statements and assumptions.

    I thought she'd be pleased but she wasn't.

    Since my research called into question the entire premise of her article, she ignored it and published the article as she'd first written it. But the source material I found showed that her conclusions were not based on facts.

    I was disappointed and quite dismayed that she would allow this to go print in public where all who read it would think it was true. It was suggested I write a rebuttal or correction and submit it but at the time I didn't have the time or energy to tackle that task.

    It seems that some genealogists (not all by any means!) are so attached to a version of a family line that they will not recognize or acknowledge new findings that contradict the familiar (but incorrect) version.

    Here's another story with a happier ending:
    Many years ago a fellow genealogist and I published our research on a family in a respected journal. Our research proved that an old established lineage had the wrong immigrant ancestor arriving on the wrong ship.

    Unfortunately their huge and very long-standing family organization had named their newsletter after this incorrect ship. And thus they proved not only reluctant to accept our findings (which meant a change in newsletter name) but became somewhat antagonistic towards us. Then followed several years (yes I said YEARS) of us trying to persuade them of the validity or our research.

    Primary documents proving it was the wrong mand and wrong ship could not convince them to give up their beliefs. They simply refused to look or think about what we'd found. We published our research in 2000. Last year the organization finally admitted that our research was correct and advised their membership of the new lineage.

    I applaud them for finally coming around but have to admit I've always wondered why it took over 10 years to accept the facts.

  2. I notice these discussions all the time (as for myself, I guess I haven't produced anything worth stealing yet!!) Sometimes I think people are too obsessed with "credit" for their work. But in Megan's article, and Lorine's stories, I am completely shocked that people imagine there are "versions" of genealogy and they "prefer" a certain version. What? A couple produces a child, and possibly raises the child, who then produces children, and so on. These things happened, they are facts. Since there was indeed ONLY one version, why aren't people just determined to get at the truth? It only happened one way. There is no such thing as "close", although certainly one could find some facts - such as a location of birth, say - and be unsuccessful in knowing more, say, the names of the parents. But you can't just decide that persons A and B are "close" to being the parents, or ship X is "close" to being the ship that was traveled on. That's all nonsense.

    I guess I'm mystified about why anyone would pursue this as a serious hobby, or an occupation, and then not have much integrity about their work.

  3. Wow! Shows how weird and wonderfully wacky our brains are if we can hold to a wrong belief in the face of clear proof!! Oh, wait a minute - I think this has happened many times before, hasn't it? :-)
    As for me, I've found a long-lost 1st cousin, reconnected to a lost 1st cousin once-removed on a different line, found some wonderful 2nd cousins, and some very helpful 3rd cousins. Treasures, all of them.
    For some ancestors in the 1800s, listed in online family trees, I've tried to correct some proven wrong details (name of wife, vital statistics proven in early registers, etc.), and been sarcastically labelled as a know-it-all... and I usually try to be humourous and gentle when I suggest a good source for them to have a look at for more details. Sigh. Oh well, their response is all about who they are as people, and I shrug and move on. At the moment, I'm sharing with 2nd cousins my father's family booklet I wrote over the winter, with photos, maps, and other interesting bits (no sources listed, only described) - and getting some excited results. My genealogy research is all about family connections, and so far, it's working 'way past my wildest dreams. Great post topic, Marian, once again.

  4. I've been tweeting comments about this since reading the original blog - trying to avoid writing a resonse here. I was trying to avoid pulling scabs off the wounds but I can see that I'm going to have to add my two cents or have no peace. ;) This is a subject I always have a strong reaction to. Once burned...twice shy? How about multiple times burned....countless times shy?

    First the good - I knew NOTHING about my dad beyond his name and manner of death. I desperately wanted / needed to know. If I hadn't had my own family research online I would NEVER have made the connections that supplied me with many serendipitous moments of gaining family treasures, memories, pictures, heirlooms. I'm incredibly blessed and never sorry that I did that. If you don't share you may miss important connections.

    Now the bad - For years I was a list administrator for a surname with over 200 people on it. We all descended from a common ancestor. I zealously did research for everyone I could - freely & without hesitation. I made a web site. I put data online everywhere I could in hopes of helping others make connections. I never thought of the data being used in a book - let alone multiple books. Credit does matter because you want the readers to be able to go back to the original researcher with questions / corrections. It's also just flat wrong to steal someone else's research. Someone puts heart and soul and time into providing research - and for free - and then someone comes along and steals it? There's no other word for it. Whether it's to increase the numbers in their database or to make a book - there are many unscrupulous people out there taking advantage of well meaning researchers. I got burned way too many times. I also go burned out. There were many who were very negative - very nasty - very mean & most of them felt - and still feel - that I found Native American heritage in their lines proving their family stories - aka myths - and that I'm hiding it from them for some perverted reason. Why would I do that? They think I'm hoarding info for a book. Why would I do that if I'm putting information online for free? DUMB So I quit and took it all offline. I still see my info incorporated into a lot of databases though - even mistakes I made. I put my initials into things and the fools don't even realize it. I got hounded so much for the Native American or for data for OTHER people to write a book that I cut all ties and keep my identity private now.

    Another bad thing was learning the hard & painful lesson of privatizing. I didn't do it and shared a Gedcom that travelled far and wide. It went places I never dreamed of - including to people not even related to my lines. Those people just wanted more numbers in their databases. When I saw my children's and grandchildren's detailed data online I freaked - and the ultimate responsibility was mine. I didn't privatize when I shared with ONE person who wasn't even putting info online. He shared Gedcoms with others though. That was quite a mess to clean up. So be careful. Keep your living info privatized!

    There have been arguments for and against sharing for as long as I've been doing research and I'm sure before and that those arguments will continue. There is good. Don't get me wrong. Just be careful. Be aware that others may take your work and do what was done to Megan. That is plagiarism. Plus to put a book out that's not factual / accurate is just not good. Every genealogist that's ever had to deal with incorrect information curses the fact that people aren't careful to ensure accuracy. Then others come along and copy the incorrect info as facts. The nightmare of that is endless. Be responsible to start with and avoid the pitfalls if you can.

  5. It really is a mystery why some cannot except they have a fact in error. Must be a brain thing. I have relatives on my great grandfather's side that have facts about my grandmother and uncle incorrect and now will not communicate with me after I tried to correct them.
    Yet the plus side of sharing far out ways the negatives. So many have shared with me much that has benefitted my research.

  6. The trick is to not point incorrect data out as a mistake, but to present your findings as an alternative, regardless of how certain you are about you being right and the other being wrong. I usually share my sources, not my tree.

  7. Although I am not on the level where my work receives more than a handful of people's attention, theft evidently occurs on all levels. Over the years as I have researched my tree, I have published pictures attached to my family tree to an online family tree site. Countless times I have discovered others have taken those pictures and attached them to their tree but to completely different people. Most remove them after I gently tell them that they are doing a great disservice by attaching a photo to a person without doing the research to prove it and that they can be propagating a lie to many future generations. But a couple I have had to step up my tone and attach comments to their tree letting others know that this photo does not belong to that person in order to get them to remove it. I put those photos there to help others researching the same people but after going through these conversations about once a month, I wonder if it is worth it and have contemplated removing them altogether.

    1. That is really a shame. I hadn't read your post yet when I talked about my fear that would happen. This validates my fear. Even if you make it so people can't download the pix (which might slow theft down), they can take a screen shot. Why do they want to attach pix to the wrong people? Mystifying and wrong. They are really screwing over future generations. You know as soon as you stop watching it, they will re post it all. And probably are sending out their own trees with the wrong pix attached. I would probably remove the pix and post a note offering to email the pix upon request, at your own discretion.

  8. I chose to put my family research (with extensive documentation and pictures I took) on my own web site, rather than on one of the family tree sites. I am seeing my pictures on the family tree site and my relatives attached to the wrong trees. It's useless to object. On the other hand, a number of people have complimented me on my site and said that it helped them distinguish between my ancestor and another man of the same name, which was my purpose.

  9. I'm horrified at Megan's experience, but not surprised. I have had similar things a few times. The worst involved a client who published a book on his ancestry after I had carried out the Scottish research, which did not prove/disprove the family lore. He published the family stories as facts beyond doubt anyway and sent me a copy of the book. I'm pleased that he didn't credit me with the misinformation, but I hope that anyone who uses his book in the future takes the time to check the original sources.

  10. This is my fear when I share photographs, especially. I'm afraid to post photographs online for that reason. In a few years someone will have applied my ancestors' photos to fill out the profiles of their own ancestors, erroneously. Some people just want a perky page or a fuller story and don't really care about accuracy (horrifying.) So they will take this 'fact' from here and that photo from there, put it together and make family tree soup. Then it gets copied repeatedly and becomes 'fact.' How do we prevent that? I put an invisible watermark on all my photos but no one can keep on top of everything once it's online.

  11. Oh and for the record, as I do my tree I sometimes have to totally erase what I had assumed or others had held to be fact. But the actual truth is always more interesting anyway! No one should fear accuracy or truth, especially in family research.

  12. What does everyone think of people - strangers and 'cousins' alike - grabbing certs and photos and docs off a tree without asking first? And of course, they reuse it without a credit or source. I think credit and source are vital. Not because "I found it first" but because of the chain of attribution that as time passes will lend credence to something. Of course, that doesn't apply to county certificates, but to most other things. In my opinion. What do you all think?

  13. How about a distant cousin who sends you a preview of his soon to be published family history book using my name and my mother's and other relatives,without our consent or knowledge, along with our DNA information posted proudly with a negligible amount of Native American percentage that's considered to be "noise" by the person who developed the admixture tool, and then highlights the Native American part of the DNA findings to perpetuate an obviously mixed up 168 year old oral story about my 3rd great grandmother, but he thinks it's true although all facts dispute it.

    Then he gleans information from my private emails to him and uses it, along with stealing photos from my private tree to create a chapter on my ancestor, not his, that is full of fiction!