Sunday, April 1, 2012

Intellectual Honesty

With recent news accounts that the President of Hungary is being asked to resign due to the discovery that his Ph.D Dissertation had unusually extensive copying, the issue of plagiarism has once again been catapulted into prominence.  There is an even more fundamental issue, that of intellectual honesty. Unfortunately, this issue also intrudes itself into the every-day practice of genealogical research.

I live in a different research world. In the legal community, you have to cite your sources. Period. If you fail to cite a source, no matter how good your argument, the court can completely disregard it. The reason is that our legal system relies on the principle of stare decisis or precedent. As much as is possible, legal writing and legal arguments rely on the decisions in previous cases. Not only is it mandatory to cite your sources, you generally are required to quote them exactly and extensively. In writing a legal brief, failing to cite a source would not only be intellectually dishonest, it would be ineffective and poor legal writing.

In the academic world, failing to cite your sources and extensive copying are considered plagiarism. We don't hear a lot about plagiarism in the genealogical community, but I can say with certainty, that it is rampant and that failure to cite a source is endemic. This is completely apart from any further issues of copyright. Even if something that is copied is in the public domain failing to cite a source and copying without attribution is intellectual dishonesty. Any time you are appropriating ideas and work as you own without giving credit to the originator you are being dishonest.

Violating copyright laws is also intellectually dishonest. The mistake is thinking that as long as an item is not under copyright you can copy it to your heart's content. The answer is yes, you can copy it without violating the copyright law, but failure to provide a source citation, failure to attribute the work or appropriating the work as your own is intellectually dishonest. 

You don't have to go very far to find extensive genealogical plagiarism, just look at any collection of family trees. There are almost always multiple copies of anything original without a shadow of attribution. This problem is especially prominent with the use of photographs. When was the last time you saw the name of the photographer associated with an old photograph? It may be an extensively common practice but it is intellectually dishonest when there is any possibility that the work would be improperly attributed to the appropriator.

But intellectual honesty goes far beyond mere copying. Is it intellectually honest to appropriate someone's research and present it as your own? I cannot count the number of times I have heard complaints from genealogists about someone copying their research and then publishing or putting it online as their own work without so much a mentioning the source of the information. It doesn't matter that the originator cares or does not care about being recognized, intellectual honesty requires some sort of notice to a reader that the work is not your own.

Mind you, I am not talking about facts. Facts are facts. "George was born in 1835" is a fact. But it is dishonest to represent that you did the research without giving the source. So this is not an issue of copyright, which does not extend to protecting facts and ideas, but an issue of intellectual honesty.

It is further intellectually dishonest to copy unsupported data without verifying that it is correct. I have mentioned in this blog before about the long line of Tanner surname books that contain the same copied inaccurate information. In this case, even if the copies are given full attribution, it is equally intellectually dishonest to republish unsupported and inaccurate data.

When was the last time you heard a presentation or read a blog post on intellectual honesty. The idea of attributing your research and sources is often discussed, but without mentioning the basic concepts.

The solution is quite simple. Don't violate the copyright laws. Cite your sources as completely and consistently as possible and always attribute the work of others.

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