Dealing with Ethical Dilemmas in an Online World

February 26, 2016  - by 

Ethical dilemmas are part of everyday life and seem to increase in complexity as we continue to grow the global community, including within the realm of genealogy and family history. While at RootsTech 2016, Australian genealogist Jill Ball gathered an international panel to discuss this subject by providing a number of scenarios common in the genealogy community. The panel consisted of Christine Woodcock, Kirsty Gray, and Roger Moffat. Those in attendance also participated in the discussion.

Have you witnessed or experienced any of the following?

  • Photographing slides in a genealogy lecture as a form of modern day note-taking
  • Lacking a paid subscription to a website, a friend asks you to search on your account for an ancestor, document, article, etc.
  • Inheriting a distant relative’s artifacts, you later discover a direct descendant who would like to take possession of the items.

These are just a few of the ethical dilemmas facing genealogists today. There are also major considerations, such as how to respond to scandalous discoveries, plagiarism, and copyright violations. An interesting point made about uncovering a potential scandal is that the discovery may be about the dead but can, and most often does, affect the living. Balancing the “right to know” and the “right to privacy” can be challenging. All agreed that an individual must act responsibly with information that is in their possession.

Dictionary.com defines plagiarism as, “Literary theft. Plagiarism occurs when a writer duplicates another writer’s language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own. Copyright laws protect writers’ words as their legal property.” It was suggested that a simple solution to avoid plagiarism is to credit one’s source and, if three or more words of another author are used, place those words in quotes.

Copyright violations breach ethics and may find an individual on the wrong side of the law. It was common at RootsTech to see attendees taking photographs of slides in a session. As mentioned above, it has become a modern form of note-taking. Nevertheless, the slides are under copyright protection. Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, was referred to on this topic and addresses this issue in a blog post she wrote after RootsTech 2015 titled, “Copyright and the genealogy lecture” that I recommend to you.

There are many ethical dilemmas presented to genealogists and family historians. As the community grows, Jill expressed concern that the quality of advice online is sometimes “dubious” and asked, “How do we stem the flow of inaccurate or poor guidance given online?” The consensus was that education is the answer. I would suggest that raising awareness is the first step. Confucius is credited with saying, “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.” Nevertheless, as it is sometimes expressed, “We do not know what we do not know.” Discussions, like the session held at RootsTech, are significant in raising awareness and assisting in the education of the community.

To summarize the wisdom gleaned from the discussion: if it’s a violation of law or a violation of a moral conscience, don’t do it; if it’s considerate of another, such as reimbursing a volunteer for out-of-pocket expenses incurred on one’s behalf, do it.

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Lynn Broderick (https://thesingleleaf.wordpress.com/) is a writer by birth, a teacher by profession, and a researcher by passion. She enjoys researching individuals of the past in the context of family, community, and social history. Known as the Single Leaf, she combined her childhood memories of football and genealogy to create genealogy football and works with her team to win their family history bowl each year. She loves to coach people on how to enjoy pursuing their family history and has done so for over 25 years.

 

Lynn Broderick

Lynn Broderick (https://thesingleleaf.wordpress.com/) is a writer by birth, a teacher by profession, and a researcher by passion. She enjoys researching individuals of the past in the context of family, community, and social history. Known as the Single Leaf, she combined her childhood memories of football and genealogy to create genealogy football and works with her team to win their family history bowl each year. She loves to coach people on how to enjoy pursuing their family history and has done so for over 25 years.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Lynn for an excellent report of our session and thank you to Familysearch for publishing on this important issue.

  2. Thank you sharing a synopsis of the panel discussion. These issues are so important and yet while some of beat the drum about appropriate ethics, others don’t seem to see the ethical issues as relevant (as evidenced daily on Facebook groups) and so don’t even attend sessions such as this.

    1. I agree with you, Pauleen! Ethical actions begin with awareness of the need for such actions and followed by education. We can exemplify good ethical practices, discuss these practices and hope it catches on in the community. It’s a conversation worth continuing on social media throughout the year. One session at RootsTech is a beginning, but all of us must continue the conversation. Thank you for your comment. I hope to see you at RootsTech next year!

  3. If I understand correctly, it is considered unethical to take snapshots of slides being presented at a genealogical conference because the slides are copyrighted.

    Given that as accurate, would it also then be unethical to make photo copies of several pages from a copyrighted book at the library?

    1. I’m not an attorney so I cannot give legal advice. Issues of copyright, fair use, etc. are matters of law. If you read Judy Russell’s post suggested in this article, she provides sources for her conclusions on the matter. She has also written many other posts on The Legal Genealogist about copyright issues. As far as photographing slides, many presenters will grant permission to attendees who ask and will allow them to photograph a particularly helpful slide for the purpose of note-taking.

    2. Jack

      In the USA at least, Fair Use comes in to effect and copying a few pages of a book at a Library is generally held to be Fair Use

      Photographing EVERY slide of a lecture presentation is NOT Fair Use.

      Recording on an iPhone as video an entire presentation is NOT Fair Use.

      I witnessed both of these things happening at RootsTech 2016.

      Roger

  4. Being almost 90, trying to do genealogy, unless a seminar,talk,provides copies of their slides,summaries of their tall included in their pkg (as do with medical seminars), it is most difficult to listen,make notes & assimilate what is happening. I suspect any age would agree. Recordings, summaries, books,references could be purchased that cover subject in depth.

  5. Addition to my previous comment: many of us are unable to travel and therefore really appreciate reports such as this one.

    1. We appreciate your feedback. Many presenters provide the main points in their syllabus and that can help. I agree that articles like this one help those who are unable to attend. Thank you, Lois, for your comment. All the best!