Whether you’re just starting out on your genealogy journey, or have been at it for years, you have likely made (many) mistakes. Unless you’ve been professionally trained in research techniques and etiquette (and even if you have) mistakes are part of the process and offer an opportunity to learn and grow as a researcher.
But sometimes mistakes become habits, ones that are very hard to break. And when one person persists in repeating a mistake, others are likely to follow.
As genealogy grows as a hobby, and information becomes easier and easier to find and share, one particular mistake has become a huge problem online – copying and sharing other people’s research.
The reasons NOT to do this are numerous, and yet so many people continue the practice it that longtime researchers can’t help wondering why?
Perhaps it is because the reasons why not to are not as obvious as they seem — especially to those who are just starting out. So here is a breakdown of some of the top reasons you should avoid this practice at all costs, even though it can seem like the easiest route to a full family tree.
It is easy enough these days to go online, type in an ancestor’s name and a few details, and end up viewing the family tree of a stranger. It is tempting to simply grab that information and add it to your own files. Maybe you feel that because the information matches some of what you already know you can trust it, maybe you’re not that serious about family history and are just looking for a few names to share with family, or perhaps you plan to add it to your tree now and verify the details later. These may all seems like good reasons to copy that data, but they’re not.
You can never be sure whether or not a person’s research is accurate, and simply copying and pasting means that you could be filling up your tree with questionable information. Even if that tree is carefully researched and documented, how can you know that the family historian didn’t make a mistake somewhere? One simple error can easily lead to many more.
When you are assuming that connections and details are correct, it can be incredibly easy to miss errors, even obvious ones, or even add a completely incorrect branch to your family’s story. Do you really want to take the chance?
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On the other hand, carefully researching and documenting each new addition yourself gives you the chance to catch inconsistencies, correct problems and expand on details. It gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you did the digging necessary to make sure the information you’re recording (and sharing with family at your next gathering) is as accurate as possible.
Even finding NO information is better than accepting that which cannot be verified, and may even lead to new discoveries of its own.
Simply copying and pasting information from another person’s tree means many lost chances for discovery. When you don’t take the time to carefully verify whether claims are backed by solid documentation, or look for facts and records yourself, you lose the opportunity add to your research in a meaningful way. You lose endless chances to add vital details and explore new connections. You are likely even losing the chance to discover new family branches.
New discoveries come from careful research. They come from digging and considering, scouring and rejecting, they come from putting details in context and from uncovering things you’ve never encountered before.
They also come from questioning old family stories and the information you have, or find, that others have compiled. When you come across another person’s research, and accept it at face value, you are losing the chance to find something new and fill out the story of your ancestors.
This is true even if the information you are copying is 100% accurate. JaneDoe23 may have the marriage date and location of great grandpa and grandma Johnson correct, for instance, but because you never took the time to look at the marriage record yourself you will never know that great grandma’s dad was listed as a cobbler or that she had a sister named Mary who acted as her witness, or that great grandpa’s first name is listed as Henrik not Henry. This is what really makes family history research exciting. Don’t miss it!
Hurting Other People’s Research
Let’s face it. Every single family historian is probably guilty of copying information from an online tree without proper verification at some point or another. Even if they did so with the intention of fixing problems later on, it may be causing more problems than they realize.
If you copy incorrect names and dates into your family tree and make that information available online to the public, or even to close family members, then you are now an active link in a chain of inaccuracy. Any family historian may come across your research, assume it’s correct, and copy it themselves. A family member may take your private research and make it publicly available in a few clicks (this does happen). If you’ve ever played a game of “telephone” you can imagine how quickly this can go wrong. Not only can incorrect information spread like wildfire this way, as it spreads it can easily gain even more errors.
And once a few people copy this information without taking the time to carefully verify it, there is no way of stopping it. Even if alternative correct information is available a newbie is more likely to believe what they see again and again. If you have been doing genealogy research for any length of time you have probably seen this in action — tens of tree with the same glaringly obvious name, date or entire family line in place. That false information could easily persist for generations. Avoid being part of this chain of errors at all costs.
What to Do Instead of Copying and Sharing
Use the information you find in other people’s trees as a helper only. Instead of copying it into your own tree, take the time to make sure every name, date and location is backed by a source document or reasonable alternative first. This includes connections between lines (for instance, John Anderson’s information in that great tree you found on Ancestry may be correct and well documented, but is he really the father of Anne? Do you have a record that proves that?)
A another good strategy is to never share research you are not reasonably sure is correct and that you don’t have records for. Have two trees, one that you use for information you are still working on (which you keep private) and one for details that have been verified (which you share). If you want to share your “working” tree with family members or others to gain their help or insight, be very clear that you do not want it to be published online where it can be taken out of context.
This article is not intended to discourage sharing of family tree information. Sharing research is, after all, the ultimate purpose for most family historians. Genealogy would be in a sad state if everyone suddenly decided not to offer up their knowledge to others. But it is our responsibility as researchers to make sure the information we are gathering and sharing is accurate. Not doing so makes research harder and less satisfying for everyone.
The Ancestry Crash Course from Family History Daily covers how to properly use member trees on Ancestry.com in a series of hands-on lessons. These lessons will show you creative ways to build your tree and find more records while using the research of others responsibly. Find it here.
Image: WPA Administrator appears before Senate Relief Committee. 1938. Library of Congress
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