Tuesday 3 December 2013

Ethics and Genealogy

I once belonged to a user group which specifically dealt with issue of ethics as it pertained to genealogy. The two areas with the hottest debates were issues dealing with 1) sharing data and 2) what kind of data should we share - if we could agree on the issue of sharing in the first place.

To Share Or Not To Share: my personal experience

Although not a specific topic solely related to Catudal genealogy I am daring to tread these waters because of the 10 years I've spent researching Catudal family history – the 10 years represents over 10,000 hours! When I started researching parts of my family history I readily shared whatever I had with anyone who was interested. It didn't take long for me to learn that sharing information was often a one-sided street; so often that I started to feel used.

This is what the typical scenario used to look like:

I received an e-mail from someone who had seen one of my posts or had somehow found out that I had done quite a bit of research into Catudal family history. They'd say something like “Hi there, my grandmother/grandfather was a Catudal. Their names were such and such. Do you have any information on my line?

Nice enough, right? I would have spent a couple hours pulling out all the documents I had for their line and would have put together a lineage report for them. I would have mailed all this to them and would have asked them if they could fill-in a couple blanks for me. For instance what was their father and mother's name and when and where were their parents married and I would have also asked if they had any wedding photos of their grandparents/parents/great grandparents – anything. And this is what would have happened almost every single time:


A big fat nothing. Not one piece of info back, no pictures AND not even a thank-you! In all the years I've been helping people find their Catudal roots I have only had 5 responses where the person actually not only thanked me but offered some information that I was missing.

Each time I've experienced this phenomenon I swear I'll never ever share again. Of course being the optimist I am I think that the next person will be different but almost always I'm disappointed again and again. So I decided to change how I share...

This is what the typical scenario now looks like:

I changed my strategy in that when someone e-mails me a request for information I only send out an ancestry chart showing their particular line back to Jean-Baptiste Catudal dit St-Jean and then wait to see if they respond. Now I usually get a thank you – things have improved - but still no sharing from their side.

The other side of the coin regarding sharing is the audacity some people have of taking the information given and using it as their own. Here are a couple 'unthinkables' that happened with sharing data...

As I was close to publishing my first book I made one final trip to the Canadian Archives in Ottawa to shore up my research. Seeing that I live in Germany, going all the way to Ottawa was no easy nor cheap feat. I met an employee who happened to be an expert on one of the family names I was researching for my book. I had one brick-wall left and I was hoping beyond hope that this person had that information or could help me find that information. The long and the short of it was that this person did not have the information I was seeking and had, in fact, never heard of my particular side-branch of the family. It was this person that turned out to be thrilled because they now were learning something new. I asked this person not to publish anything on the Internet or elsewhere until my book was finished. It was agreed.

A few months later I published my book with this never before, as far as I had ever heard, information. I sent out a letter to a large number of people letting them know about my book and giving them a slight glimpse into the 'new' information. One person wrote me back and told me that that wasn't new information at all. She had seen that on a Web site just recently. It turns out that the person who worked for the Canadian Archives, the one who promised not to publish my data, did. That wouldn't have been so bad but they took the credit for the years of research I had done to gather all of this particular family's data. I was not pleased.

Another unthinkable happened when a cousin of mine wrote to me and asked me about a family tree she came across at Ancestry.com. Apparently this tree had all of her hard researched data complete with her private notes, everything! And, who was the source given for some of that data? Me!

You see, my cousin had given me her gedcom as a way to archive it off-site and I had given her mine. We did this so that if ever, God forbid, something like a fire or whatever were to occur and we hadn't had a backup stored off-site then all of the years spent researching would be lost. At face value, it looked like I had given her data away. Luckily she knew me better than that and together we worked at finding out how her data got leaked. Well, apparently she had sent her gedcom to, not only myself but also to at least one other cousin who she thought would respect her hard work. That cousin didn't. My cousin also sent her a document containing research that I had done, a pdf file. This person passed that document on as well. The person she sent the information to published everything online and took my name from the pdf file and put it on some of the stolen data as if I were her source. That kind of theft takes a very special sort of person, the kind that not only steals from others but then makes-up sources to cover their tracks. My cousin and I tried to get Ancestry.com to force this person to take the plagiarized information off of their site. Ancestry's policy clearly states that they will not tolerate plagiarism but Ancestry.com refused to act on our case. They offered no help what-so-ever.

I can't tell you how many times over the last decade that I have come across people who have harvested someone's data and published it as their own. People who probably would never think of stealing someone's purse or wallet don't bat an eye at stealing information. It comes down to how we view 'information'. In genealogy there is the added assumption that 'my' family history belongs to me. The fact that someone spent years of research and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars doing the research into a family that I belong to seems to have no bearing.

Not so long ago, if we wanted to know something we had to either go to the library and borrow a book or we had to buy a book. There was no Internet.

In 1987 I started working in a government library as a researcher. This was before the Internet became public. The Internet existed but was only used by universities and special libraries. In order to do a query I had to write up a case. That meant I had to decide how I was going to word the search. The perimeters of the search had to be detailed in order to reduce the number of false hits. Why was this all important? Cost. We were allowed a budget of $50.00 a search. Each hit cost $10.00. That meant that we would put in a search and say that we wanted only 5 hits. Only 5 hits would be returned and a bill would be sent to the Library in the amount of $50.00. We would spend a good hour or more fine tuning a search so that the results would be as relevant as possible. Can you imagine? Now, you go into Google or any search engine, enter any thing and instantly you have hits, dozens, hundred, thousands and more all in a part of a second and all at no extra cost. Twenty-five years ago data was hard to come by and it was expensive. Information wasn't cheap in any sense of the word. Today it has no intrinsic value.

Today, if you want to know something, anything, there's an app for that. Many apps in fact are free. At least that is how most of us view it. What we don't realize is that we have become the commodity. There is no such thing as free. But because the access to information has become instant and seemingly free it has no value to us, save for the very brief satisfaction of learning something new or answering a nagging question or something trivial such as that. We now don't respect intellectual property. We view the written word or the song sung as if it were our right to have even though we did nothing to earn it.

It is ILLEGAL to take information someone else has created. Illegal! But many if not most think nothing of stealing other people's work. It is so easy to cut and paste or simply to download. Nothing to it. It isn't even a question of doing anything wrong anymore. Everyone does it. Everyone on Facebook that shares a picture they found or a video they found somewhere on the Internet is stealing if they didn't ask the person who created or made the item for permission to use it.

When I was writing my first book I was contemplating publishing my work in pdf format, which would have saved me many thousands of dollars had I done so. While I was thinking about this I sent out an e-mail to cousins asking them what they thought. I told them that I would be password protecting the pdf so that to view, print or copy the data one would have to have the password. One of my cousins wrote to me and told me that if I wanted to charge for the data that she would find a way to crack the pdf file. She said that I had chosen to do the family research and that that information belonged to the whole family. I had no right to sell the book whether in pdf file format or in hard copy. I told her that the project I was working on was not only for my family but was going to be housed in various archives around the world. I likened my book to other history books, they belong to us in the sense that any history book is our history because we are a part of the human race. Did she expect people who research and write books on topics that relate to us to give us not only their books but all of their source data as well for free? No answer came back.

Many amateur genealogists argue why should they be expected to duplicate the effort. If I've already got the information why would I mind passing it on?

I used to belong to a group which discussed ethics in genealogy. In one of our discussions on sharing, Barbara A Brown reprinted a quote by Richard Pence:

"I am no longer buying any tools, appliances, or lawn equipment. You all have already spent a lot of money on this stuff, so why should I duplicate that? Lend me everything you have. It is only right that we share."

After all these years researching New France genealogy I have found that very little that we now find online, put there by private individuals, has much value. The reason is that much of it is simply copied from one family tree to another without sourcing, making the information all but useless and secondly, most importantly, anyone doing serious research has been burned many times by people expecting them to give away all of their hard work or even worse by those 'harvesters' who steal the work of others without so much as a thank-you. No, the Internet presence by most of the serious researchers has become rare indeed. Having said all this, having ranted a fair bit, I'm thinking of putting all of my Catudal research online. At least then, when someone takes my work to claim it as there own then that work will be correct.

What Kind Of Data Should We Share?

It's been my experience that people don't want to share the very types of information they are so hungry to know about others.

I once posted a question in the Catudal Facebook page asking the members to let me know if anyone in their Catudal line had or had had Alzheimer. Two answered on that Facebook page, the rest wrote me privately telling me who in their family had or had had Alzheimer but asked me not to make it public. The stigma of having an illness associated with the debilitation of a relative's cognitive capabilities was very present. It never occurred to me that this would be an issue associated with shame. My motivation was to see if we as Catudals had a higher ratio of Alzheimer than the norm. It wasn't meant to be a scientific demonstration but I had hoped to see if some family lines had a propensity for this illness as opposed to other lines. I did see some disturbing trends in two sides of the Catudal family lines but couldn't publish my results because I'd been given the information in confidence. But, a big but, most people who wrote me asked me to tell them the results. People don't want to divulge their dark truths but they sure want to know someone else's.

I have been privy to many, many stories of sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, incest, run-ins with the law and suicide. Each and every time the person passing on the information wanted me to stay silent. I stayed silent. In fact I never even wrote the information down. I was too worried that if my data were ever passed down when I die that someone else with no moral compass would publish the information hurting many families in their wake. Was I right? Have we no right to know if our family line has a higher level of Alzheimer than another of our family lines? What about families with higher suicide rates? What dirty laundry do we launder in public and what not?

You'd be surprised how many people have complained to me about their right to know.

Then comes the question of 'is what you know to be true, really true?' I mean did weird Ted really like little girls or was that some malicious gossip that had no basis in truth?

In my Catudal research I spent a great deal of time searching through newspapers and found a really interesting story about a Catudal arsonist who was quite active for a while. He was caught but there was a jurisdictional issue. One body gave up their claim of jurisdiction so that this person could be prosecuted in the other jurisdiction solely. It was discovered that the other jurisdiction never had the right to prosecute in the first place. The short and long of it was that the arsonist got off over this technicality. There was no question of his guilt, he was caught red-handed. I knew all this when I wrote my second book The Familes Catudal but I never published the facts. I struggle with that now and again. All of this information is in the public record. It's not easy to find but the court records are out there. The reason I didn't publish this was because the family of the individual is alive and I don't know how much they know or don't know. Was I right? Do we not as a community, a world community, have a right to know if an former arsonist lives next door to us? I mean, if it is a matter of public record and has been through the courts then it isn't hear-say anymore, is it?

How far do we go?

Personally, I have not documented stories of child abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, incest, suicide, adoption, sexual orientation, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse or addition and criminal activity. The one caveat is with the subject of adoption. If the adoption occurred more than 100 years ago I add that openly to my database. Also, if all parties agree to that information being documented I have done so. Otherwise I've made it a policy to steer clear.

I think most every one of us would love to find someone who could tell them fun and interesting stories about our forefathers: what did they do for a living, did they have hobbies, did they have illnesses and so on. Yet, in most cases, it has been like pulling teeth to try and gather anything but raw data to describe our Catudal family. Luckily, there were a few who were so very kind to share wonderful memories with me so that I could document them for future generations but unfortunately they were not in the majority.

I once had a lady write to me asking me if I had stories about her great grandmother. She wanted to know more about her than just when and where she was born, married and died. Imagine, she expected me, a pure stranger, to have that sort of information. Information she herself didn't possess. Information that almost no one shares any longer. How sad!

I wish we could share pictures and stories of our families. I wish those with whom we share information with would be fair and give us credit for the hours of research we did. But that's just not the norm. It's truly amazing how cheap people have come to view information.