Dealing with Ethical Dilemmas in an Online World

Etichal Issues Panal

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. 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.

Lynn Broderick ( 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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