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

Friday, June 3, 2011

Entering the citation jungle

The fact that anytime you find a source of information and use that information, the source should be attributed seems like one of the most basic concepts of research and cooperative civilized life in general. The purpose for citing sources fall into various categories including:
  1. Remembering and keeping track of where the information came from so that you (the researcher) can find it again if you need to do so.
  2. Letting others know where the information came from so that they can verify your accuracy in reporting the information and do further research if they care to do so.
  3. Validating your research so that others know that you didn't just make up the information.
  4. Avoiding copyright and plagiarism claims. If you copy information you run the risk of claims that your work was not original. I will comment on this more fully below.
  5. Observing the minimum requirements of good scholarship and research, that is, acknowledging the work of others in supporting your own work.
  6. Helping to give credence to any conclusions you derive from your research. It is one thing to claim a family relationship based on your opinion and another to provide documentation that the relationship exists. 
I could go on, of course, there are a lot of other reasons even ones getting into issues of morality and honesty. I realize numbers three and six are very closely related but validation and believability are not the same thing.

Plagiarism is copying someone's work, whether or not it is copyrighted, and failing to provide an attribution, thereby allowing people to believe it is your own creation. Anytime you use an idea or words or pictures or whatever that comes from someone else, you should give credit to the source. To fail to give credit is morally reprehensible and bad scholarship to boot. It is essentially similar to stealing, you may be able to steal for a protracted period of time, but your entire moral and social standing will deteriorate as soon as you are discovered. (Actually, your moral standing goes when you steal, but that is another discussion) I am not talking about discovery of wrong doing, I am talking about individual integrity.

Copying off of the Internet, in today's world, is simply silly. Most schools in the U.S. now have search capabilities to enter student's text into a search that will almost instantly tell the teachers if the students have copied their work. I can do the same thing by copying a portion of a text document and searching for those same words. You can do a Google search on an entire page or paragraph and if you find the same exact words, you can see immediately where the words came from.

Whether or not you attach any moral significance to plagiarism is your problem, but it becomes my problem when you try to establish the work as your own.

Unfortunately, there is a substrata in genealogy that excuses wholesale copying of pedigrees and such. I ofter hear complaints that entire genealogical files, shared with a relative, have been republished without so much as a thank you to the original source. Citation goes way beyond the issue of how to format the attribution, it goes to the essence of creating a trusting and cooperative society. To the extent that the members of the genealogical community fail to provide attribution (i.e. citation to sources), to that extent the ultimate goals of research cooperation will be frustrated.

I also think that the arguments over the style or format of citation is silly. Do I really need an 800+ page book to tell me how to write down the information I need about sources? Well, the answer to that question is in the next post as well as a discussion, again, of the copyright issues. I will also comment more fully on doing Internet searches to determine plagiarism.

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