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Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Matter of Ethics -- Genealogy and the Internet Part Two

In my last post on Ethics, I began the discussion of whether or not it was even possible to have either a formal or informal code of ethics for a discipline as diffuse as genealogy? There is no doubt that professional organizations, from plumbers to doctors can and do have codes of ethics. Usually, the organization has only the ability to expel any non-conforming member. There are exceptions. In law, the various State Bar Associations can impose civil penalties on offending lawyers. In extreme cases, the lawyer may be taken to court and a judgment entered against him or her. But what do you do if "New Genealogical Researcher" who belongs to no organizations and has no formal training violates somebody's idea of what is ethical? Obviously, there is significant difference between the professional and the practitioner.

As I noted in my last post, the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG) has a Code of Ethics. In addition, the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) also has a Code of Ethics. The APG Code not only has guidelines, but also contains procedures for making a complaint against an offending member of the APG. In the context of a discipline such as genealogy, ethics could be best defined as the standards of conduct of the community and in this case, the only portion of ethical considerations we are concerned with are those dealing directly with genealogy or family history. If you have not done so recently, I would suggest reviewing both of the Codes of Ethics cited above.

Does use of the Internet by genealogist create, in and of itself, any additional ethical issues? I do not believe so. The Internet does raise new and unique privacy issues, but a professional response to the issues can be made within the existing guidelines. For example, the BCG Code states that the genealogist pledges "To act in my client's best interests; and To protect my client's privacy." An ethical response to a new or unique situation does not require a new system of ethics, it merely requires the individual to respond in an ethical manner. We do not invent a new code of ethics every time there is some technological change. Even though the Internet may pose new copyright, contract or other issues, the ethical response is the same. Ethics is not a list of things you cannot or should not do, but a set of principles that if implemented will provide a guide for a response to any situation that may arise.

Another example, the BCG Code says, "If the research question involves analysis of data in order to establish a genealogical relationship or identity, I will report that the conclusions are based on the weight of the available evidence and that absolute proof of genealogical relationships is usually not possible." How would this statement be affected if the data was obtained online rather than from a physical record in a repository? Not at all. How and where the data is obtained does not enter into the issue of ethics unless the researcher is using unethical practices to obtain the data in the first place, such as copying someone else's work.

Contrary to those who believe that the world needs to be reinvented with every new thing that occurs, old and established values, such as the ethics statements contained in the two codes above, are more than sufficient to address the challenges of the Internet or any other technological advance.

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