There are a number of ethical issues that warrant consideration.
Genealogy and Personal Information
By the very nature of genealogy and family research, you will be dealing with personal information about people from both the past and the present. Researchers should respect peoples right to privacy and as such, should never publish personal records (i.e. posting on a web site, etc.) about living individuals.
Genealogists are always striving for the truth, but be aware other members of your family may be less than enthusiastic. There may be certain family details they do not want revealed to the public. Always be aware of these issues and respond to their concerns accordingly.
Research and Documentation
Search out the facts and you will show respect for your ancestors. Document those facts, and you will show respect for other genealogists. These two brief statements may be used to sum up the principles that traditional genealogists have subscribed to for years. Through research and documentation they work to ensure that valid and correct information is published to pass on to future generations.
But the Internet has brought with it a new type of genealogist. Through the ease with which information can be published to and copied from the web, many are more content to take any and all information that is out there, regardless of its source. Many times it is not well documented or can be easily proven incorrect. Although genealogy and family research has always been exciting when you can trace your family back many generations, or that you are related to someone “famous”, if it can be proven to be incorrect, where is its value. Unfortunately this “misinformation” is now being copied and recopied into untold number of family trees. When entering information into your research, you should always strive to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard to ensure the validity of your research.
Recognition and Copyright
Family researchers around the world were given a powerful new tool with the advent of the Internet. We are now able to view scanned images of original documents from the comfort of our own home. Thousands of individuals have volunteered to create massive databases of transcribed materials or indexes that greatly reduce our research time by directing us very quickly to a specific source document. Many people are choosing to publish their documented family trees on to websites.
But researchers should be aware that just because it is “on the web” does not mean it is public domain. Citing your sources whether from a book, magazine or website not only helps you keep track of where the information comes from but it also gives recognition to those who have helped you with your research. Plagarism, no matter how innocent, should not be encouraged. Just as you would discourage a student from copying an essay from the internet, and claiming it as their own, so should you avoid adding information to your research without properly citing your sources.
Helping versus Hindering
A different type of problem is also presenting itself. One that was innocent enough in the beginning, but that could have far reaching consequences. Traditionally, one of the great things about genealogy has been the willingness of researchers to help each other. A person who had the time, would do research for someone at a distance. Perhaps they would visit the local cemetery looking for information, or would make a copy of a birth registration from the local archives.
This type of help is always appreciated, as we are not all lucky enough to be close to the resources we need. However, consideration should be given to the type of information being provided. References that come from copyrighted publications should not be so easily passed on. Unfortunately, through the power of the Internet, these types of “lookups” are becoming much too common.
Clubs and societies have formed that specialized in collating and indexing the various resources that were locally available. These were published and sold to others doing research in the area. The proceeds then went to further indexing and transcription projects, thus perpetuating the club and the creation of future resources.
If these type of resources are “shared” too easily, clubs and societies lose in many ways. They lose volunteers who did the work as they no longer receive recognition. They lose income from publications that might otherwise be sold. They lose income from dues as fewer people are likely to join. Without this income and assistance, less projects will be worked on so fewer of these resources will be available in the future.