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November 3, 2014

The Plagiarism Problem Rears its Ugly Head

The Plagiarism Problem Rears its Ugly Head
Plagiarism. What is it? Why is it a problem? 

Plagiarism is defined as the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. Copyright laws are there to protect our work but the internet has given rise a new breed of plagiarists and copyright violators who believe that if something is published online it is up for grabs.

Not so. Plagiarism is unethical and against copyright laws. Publishing on the internet is no different than publishing in a book. Once you write and publish something on a website or a blog it is copyright protected.  

There are many who mistakenly believe that as long as they don't try to make money from taking your work, it is okay. Nope. The reasons for the theft are not important. Theft is theft. Copyright violations and plagiarism are theft. 

Copyright and plagiarism are not the same thing however. Copyright is the legal right given to an author to publish his/her works and to authorize others to share them (or refuse permission for others to share them). Plagiarism is when copyright is violated and the person who took the material attaches their own name as if they had written it.

I have had my own share of plagiarists. The most blatant was in 2011 when a writer for a large newspaper in Texas took an article I had written and published on my Olive Tree Genealogy website, and published it in the newspaper she worked for with her name as the author. She even used an identical layout to mine. This woman, to my shock, was a well known and highly placed member of one of the largest American Genealogy Societies.

After getting nowhere trying to discuss the problem with her privately, I wrote to the editor of the newspaper. He and his Ethics Committee investigated my complaint and found my accusations to be true. This woman had worked for the newspaper writing a weekly column on genealogy for almost 20 years. The Ethics Committee took action.  The newspaper fired her and the article was pulled from its online spot. My article with her name as author had gone out the day before in the print edition so a retraction and apology was issued in the next print edition.

I share this with my readers to point out that Plagiarism and Copyright violations happen frequently and they are a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. If your work has been copied without your permission you need to take action. Do not let it slide. Do you think Stephen King shrugs his shoulders if someone pirates one of his novels and republishes it? Your published work is no different. It is protected by copyright and you need to defend your copyright at all times. 

Your first step should be to attach a copyright notice to your online articles. But be aware that this does not often deter the unethical among us. In fact, the article I wrote which this woman attached her name to, has this notice at the bottom of it

This article was written by Lorine McGinnis Schulze of The Olive Tree Genealogy at Permission to copy is granted as long as the article remains AS IS. No changes may be made to the article and all identifying information and website link must remain intact! This Permission to Copy notice must remain with the article

Even though the use of this specific article was clearly defined, the woman who copied and used it not only removed all reference to me or my website, she put her name as the author.

What brought this back to my mind is the latest in a run of unethical behaviour by a genealogist. To learn more please read GenealogyInTime's article Let's Talk About Plagiarism about an apparent case of plagiarism via email newsletters which affects them personally. 

Plagiarism is not okay and we as a community of genealogists must do our best to stop it from happening. 


T said...

Not long ago I discovered a family tree at that had every one of my photos and documents displayed on it but the author was the tree owner. Obviously she had saved everything to her computer and uploaded to ancestry. When I first found her tree and had not yet discovered the theft I contacted her through ancestry thinking I had found a new cousin. I got no reply. I figured out which branch she belonged to, contacted a cousin on that branch and asked if she knew this person. She contacted her, too, but so far neither of us has been acknowledged. I've changed my tree to private which is NOT what I wanted to do. As difficult and costly as some of the research was, I wanted it "out there" for cousin bait AND to possibly help someone else who needed a clue to research their family. I will share. I will assist. I do not intend to do all the work, pay all the bills and spend all my time making a tree for someone else to claim as theirs. At least I had the pleasure of writing my own mystery novel. I wonder if that woman could tell anyone anything about any one in that branch. Since all she did was copy information, I doubt she would even recognize any name she copied that I wrote about.

GeniAus said...

G'day, I really enjoyed this post which I have included in this weeks GAGs - GeniAus Gems at

Tom D. said...

The website is famous for plagiarism.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Tom D - You really can't toss out accusations like the one you posted here without some proof.

Can you give us an example please of something on the Ancestry website which has been plagiarized?

I'll put 50 bucks down on you NOT being able to come up with one single thing.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

T - Public Family Trees on Ancestry are *meant* to be copied and shared to other trees. That's the whole idea of them.

Making your tree private is the right way to go if you don't want to share it. You can always choose to share to select individuals if you wish

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Thanks Jill!

Anonymous said...

Several years ago, I shared my manuscript with a person over 3000 miles away. Six months later, it was in print with his name attached. The reason that I knew it was mine was because, I had placed an intentional error in the document. He failed to alter anything that I had written. It still continues today even on findagrave.