Plagiarism: A Venereal Disease in the Genealogy Community

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One of the more effective ways to stop the spread of venereal disease at any time in American history, and especially World War II, was to embark on an educational campaign that brought light to the issue. Refusing to talk about VD, like any other blight upon a community, did nothing but let it perpetuate. In addition, those spreading the disease were frequently called out by the community (via public health departments and other organizations) to get tested and get help.

A certain issue and person is back circulating in the genealogy community. We’re talking plagiarism and Barry Ewell. There are many discussions on social media circulating today about the new blog Genealogy By Barry and the numerous instances of original content taken from other websites without attribution.

We’re not talking an unfounded hysteria here. This is not a rabid group of genealogists who’ve armed themselves with torches, rakes and hoes out to ruin someone’s reputation or ability to earn a living in the genealogy field. This is not about a group of haters who’ve decided to bully someone.  This is a “warning out” to those in the genealogy community by researchers who’ve done their homework, found specific instances of content theft, and feel a duty to provide information so others can make their own informed decision as to what content helps or harms the genealogy education field.

Is The Genealogy Community Being Too Harsh?

Many times when a mob was formed in a small town to “take care of business,” it was based on misinformation or cultural biases and prejudices. Not so here. Genealogists are known for their research prowess, and many have spent hours tracking content from Barry Ewell’s site and comparing it to original content by other authors.

One trick that Ewell uses is to embed content in videos – content which is not easy to compare with an original source since much of it is in the form of audio or images: Listen to the audio at http://genealogybybarry.com/7-slideshow-series/arician-american-research/ and then read http://www.prattlibrary.org/locations/afam/index.aspx?id=3000#Why. This is only one example found where Ewell has appropriated content from other authors and websites without proper attribution.

To my knowledge, Ewell has never admitted to stealing content from other sites. Until then many genealogists in the online community will not just shun him and his work, but they will feel duty-bound to inform the community. This is exactly what our ancestors did in small-town America: put out a warning about those people or practices that were harmful to the sustainability of the community.

Why Do We Allow This to Happen?

As someone who works every day trying to produce original educational content for the genealogy community – and I am one of just hundreds who do this either for pleasure or profit – it does more than just irk me that Barry Ewell continues to steal content from others. It makes me wonder why we let this happen.

I also wonder why a select few, especially genealogists who are also LDS church members, continue to promote Ewell and his site mygenshare.com or any of his work. I fully understand the church’s mission involving genealogy and family history. Even as a non-LDS person, I’ve taken time to educate myself not only on the church practices related to genealogy, but I’ve embraced LDS resources such as FamilySearch and enthusiastically promote their use to newcomers.

What I don’t understand is how many of my LDS friends not just promote Ewell’s sites, but also seem to give him a “pass” for his content theft infractions. Is it because Ewell is a member of the LDS church and it doesn’t matter as long as genealogy is being promoted? What if someone were to walk into the Deseret Book Store and steal a book on genealogy then put together a presentation based on that content and deliver a lecture at an event – LDS sanctioned or otherwise? Would these be permissible?

At some point, you have to draw a line and you have to stop enabling someone’s behavior. You get the word out so others can decide whether or not to continue working with that person.

What is the True Cost of Plagiarism in Genealogy?

Think of all the time various genealogists and others have spent researching content theft related to their own work and now to that of Barry Ewell. Think of the time you’ve spent just reading this post. Wouldn’t it have been better spent searching for ancestors or educating others on how to find their roots?

Instead, because of this pox on the genealogy community, once again we need to get the word out about plagiarism. I guess this is a form of education, and I’m sure it is an eye-opener for those new to genealogy and the online community.

While there may never be a cure for plagiarism, there is education and the need to teach new genealogists what is and what isn’t acceptable when it comes to educational content.

©2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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