Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Citations pro and con

I will apologize in advance for this post. It is not meant to be critical in any way of anyone. As genealogists I assume everyone is doing the best they can with the tools and information they have available. You may have a completely different opinion than I do on the following subject and I respect you for that opinion. 

It hadn't occurred to me that some researchers would consciously avoid providing citations to their online trees for the purpose of preventing others from "stealing" (my word) their work, until I heard exactly that sentiment. That caused me to question what percentage of genealogists have stripped down, or dumbed down online trees? The motivation apparently is to prevent plagiarism. In other words, I took the time to find that death certificate and no one else is going to benefit from my hard work unless I think they deserve it and certainly, all those other people online don't deserve it.

This issue goes to the heart of the reason for citing your work. From my point of view, research without citations is not research at all. If I claim that my relative was born on a date or in a place different than that of all other references made by other researchers, I would assume that I better be in a position to prove my point. If I publish a fact that is contrary to what is generally accepted with no citation, how can anyone tell that I know what I am talking about? Why wouldn't the "new" or "different" information just be dismissed as another poorly equipped researcher's muddled effort?

If I find a link past a brick wall relative, why wouldn't I cackle like a hen that just laid an egg? Oh no, I don't want someone else to take credit for finding the link. I want all the credit for this momentous discovery so I am going to be very, very careful who I tell about my new information. The effect is going to be that other researchers will continue to look for the information and will probably find it. How much fame do I get by saying, I knew that all along but was afraid to share it with others.

I have been doing genealogical research now for about 30 years and I can count on one hand the number of times any of my close relatives have come to me and asked for information I had in my file. Not infrequently, a distant relative will ask if I have information about a particular individual they find on the Ancestral File or New FamilySearch, but almost no one is interested in my huge file with its multitude of citations. Frequently over the years I have been unable to even give away my research because of lack of interest. So who am I trying to impress with citations? When it comes down to it, none of the people who would benefit from the extensive research are even interested enough to look at it.

Here is the simple answer. I do not do research and cite sources to please anyone but myself. If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing right and I don't have to have an audience for anything I do. I don't need positive reinforcement, I don't need a pat on the back, because the work itself is the reward. I know I did it correctly and that is all that matters. Genealogy is not a spectator sport (I have said that before).

I will not only put all my sources online, I will intentionally put all my sources online so that some day, some where, some one might benefit from my research and then the sum total of knowledge in the world will be increased. I can't and won't own my work product. Now, what if I write a book? Of course, I will copyright the book, especially if that is what I do for living. But for that same reason, I will not likely publish a book about my own genealogy.


  1. Don't apologize! You are right. Not only right but kind hearted!

  2. I think what you're seeing when people don't like to release citations they do have is a control issue. Knowledge is power, and sadly, some people feel it important to have that little power over that information, so you're forced to come to them for it, or do your own research.

  3. I totally agree! That is why my trees are public with the best I can do with citations. They're not necessarily right, of course, but as of this time they're the best I can do and I'm always open to new resources.

  4. I totally agree with your view point. I simply cringe when genealogists that I know talk about the fear of having their work "stolen."

    I say why do the work if you don't want to share. Cite the work so it's seen as fact, not fable.

  5. ... but if you write a book, you then BECOME the source. What sweet revenge! :)

  6. I have responded to this conversation offline. Let me just say that I know of two genealogists who had their well-researched and cited work pulled from the internet and published WITHOUT ATTRIBUTION. In both cases, these people will share anything with anyone. I don't like to see anyone questioning their motives for choosing not to make all of their research so freely available.