Etiquette on Copying/Pasting from Other Websites

Started by Ashley Odell on Thursday, January 13, 2011


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1/13/2011 at 11:19 PM

I'm looking for some etiquette-related input from more experienced volunteers. Please forgive the length of this message!

I've recently been doing a lot of work on citing, expanding, and formatting some relatively popular profiles. My background is as a legal/government/historical researcher, so I'm a bit neurotic about making sure verified sources are used on profiles whenever possible.

One of the problems I've seen on Geni is that a lot of people simply copy and paste entire pages from other unverified family tree websites into the "About" fields on profiles. (As a side note, this is one of the reasons it took me so long to get into concerns me when I'm holding a copy of someone's birth certificate in my hand, for example, yet I see someone on Geni telling me I'm wrong because a user-submitted tree has a different date. I'm sure many of you know the feeling!) You end up with massive trails of information on profiles, half of it contradicting the other half, and any hope of trying to write a cogent, cited, and well-formatted summary goes out the window. I've seen a lot of profiles where it looks like people have tried writing proper summaries -- and this has certainly happened to me -- but they get buried or even deleted as the trail of pasted info gets longer and longer and longer and...

User disputes are an inescapable reality of a collaborative website like this, but my larger concern is this rampant copy-and-paste mentality I'm seeing more and more, where users simply copy an entire webpage and insert it into the "About" section. My initial reaction to this is that there are copyright and plagiarism concerns, yet this seems to be the norm -- in some cases, even preferred.

Since I'm relatively new to working on the larger tree, I have to ask: Does Geni have a stance on this, formal or not? When we see copy-and-paste dumps in profiles, is it more preferable to save that information as a document attached to the profile, or to just link to the website they got it from instead of pasting the whole thing, or what? I don't know what the etiquette or convention is, but something about this just strikes me as less than preferable. At the same time, like I said, I cringe at the idea of revert wars and usually just walk away from them rather than engage, so I'm trying to tread cautiously. My inclination is to take all that stuff, summarize what's verifiable, and then put the raw data (if not copyright-protected) into the Documents area, tell me. And thanks for reading this lengthy post!

1/14/2011 at 3:32 AM

Before long it will become necessary to develop some common ground rules. I too have noticed this, and laud you for taking the time to point it out!
Wikipedia has had some very contentious discussions about copyright/ fair use with relation to material from other websites. Hopefully we will have cooler heads here!

1/14/2011 at 3:36 AM

I will choose my side of the sandbox right now and say that the copy-paste dumps need to go.. this will no doubt be a big job to repair, but we should rather link to the original website and distill the copy-pastes into relevant information.
I think I will start a project about this, where we can identify these profiles and collaborate on improving the information quality!

1/14/2011 at 3:41 AM

Ok, the project is at . @Ashley Odell , I would be honoured if you joined.

Private User
1/14/2011 at 6:03 AM

Turning the "About" section into a Wiki format may allow us to utilize templates in the future, like Wikipedia does with infoboxes. As of now, the best place for sources to content is to add the document or reference as a source (under the source tab). This will add a symbol when merging, so that people will know a particular date is sourced.

Geni wrote a blog post about this recently which lays out their goals for 2011. It includes many things to help address these issues.

1/14/2011 at 8:36 AM

Having the same concerns I started a project a few weeks ago where we could discuss the issues in more detail:

Linked to the page are some example profiles that illustrate some of the discussions pro's and cons.


1/14/2011 at 11:49 AM

Timely discussion, y'all!

- Geni is deploying, at a rapid rate, good Wikipedia type tools for reversion / sourcing / referencing.

- Curators had a several phase mission, the initial phase being to "merge up all the duplicates and establish a single Master Profile for every historical figure." Thanks to some of our more IT oriented folk, we are AHEAD of schedule / projection on achieving that. <brief snoopy dance>

.... this means we can move forward to a next phase of documenting and sourcing the Master Profiles. (As an aside: for example, I designate as MP a profile which is "good enough" as a merge guide, to indicate to folk: the relationships and basic info in this profile is more or less OK, use *this* profile to merge into and not that *other* one.)

.... One thing I've noticed from the massive cleanup is that there *is* good information in many profiles. It just got buried, overwritten, messy and generally hard to follow, nor was it particularly referenced coherently.

.... I am going to make "templates" to use as formatting guides and get those up on the Geni Community Wiki.

.... Two related projects have been started we should be joining / following; both are "identify important profiles to address" oriented. It's easy, as you go along in the tree, to add those profiles to the project (kind of like the "fake profiles" :)). The projects are:

... while we're at it ... please join the COGNOS (Naming Conventions) project so we get some consensus going on language / historical period / data input for names etc. That project is here:

.... So ... as soon as I have the templates going, I'm going to get two more related projects going, and invite everyone. They will be called:

Build A Better Profile
Pimp My Profile!

So we can graduate profiles from "needs cleanup" to "featured as an example of quality."

That will be a good Geni day!

Private User
1/14/2011 at 12:35 PM

Referring to J. Ashley's comments: I think sources should always be included, whether it's cut and paste or not. Personally, when I'm reading About Me on a profile, I think less is more. I'm not interested in reading a book about the person. I want to see a few important facts, a few sentences that tell me a little about the person. If I want to read more, I can go to the sources.

1/14/2011 at 12:43 PM

That's a really good point.

I've taken to making PDF files and attaching them as documents. That way I am both sourced and have more info available for those interested, with the brief quote.

I also particularly enjoy adding to the "media" gallery. A pictures tells a thousand ...

1/14/2011 at 12:48 PM

Hmm, we made the same point Ashley did in the first post ...

Other thoughts:

-- ultimately we want to develop original, genealogically oriented biographical essays such as those on findagrave. I find them particularly charming tributes from descendants, don't you?

-- I try and do sections with little anecdotes to get a reader interested, and "point to" the further detail in a source, link or document.

... for example: Abijah Ross had bear treeing dogs, and one day they treed a wildcat.

... for example: from his will -- I leave my best bed to my dear wife on condition she treat my son William well, and ask my dear brother in Christ Deacon Potter to oversee his interests ...

Other suggestions and best practices?

1/14/2011 at 4:09 PM

You guys are amazing! I'm so glad this got good feedback from people who are equally interested. I wasn't sure how it would come across -- I didn't want to step on toes or promote "my" way as the "best" way -- so this is a relief. :)

When I write "About" sections, I try to use a header-based format, so that the information is broken down into clear, small sections so as to not overwhelm anyone. (You can see an example of a simple one at Walter Harris.) Headers are very common in historical writing, even short-form writing, so perhaps that's a convention to at least consider. Also, I feel like saying your exact source in the same paragraph as any statement you're making should be a given. We don't need to get crazy with APA format or anything, in my view, but there should be some sort of effort made to say where the information originates.

My rule is that I never straight-out delete anything others have written (well, usually dumped). I feel like that's unfair to other contributors, even if the information they have may not be suitable for inclusion in the "About" section. We need to encourage involvement, not push people away. Instead, I move things over to the Documents section, and I include a note at the top of the file about who originally submitted it in case there are questions about where it came from.

On a similar note, I also include my name at the bottom of what I write so people know exactly where to trace the info back to in case there are questions, though now I see that there's a revision history section, so perhaps I should stop doing that. I'll probably go back through some profiles and delete those comments now...

I'm excited to see others discussing this! Thanks for creating the project, Heather -- I've indeed joined.

1/14/2011 at 4:24 PM

It is excellent to see this interest..Thanks for bringing this up, J.! I hope to be more active in terms of writing and cleanup when I have a full size netbook makes typing not all that comfortable. I also can't wait for Erica Howton's "Pimp my Profile" project!

1/14/2011 at 5:20 PM

Great points about formats, attributions, and signatures. A little info that will help, I think:

- Yes, you see that "revision history" has been introduced by Geni. This is their next step in full scale wiki-fication of the "about me," the first being the implementation of a Wiki formatting toolbox.
- They will be implementing "electronic signatures" soon, I believe (don't quote me), so that contributions can be acknowledged or questioned. :)
- Wikipedia style reference links are soon to come! This will make life much, much easier.
- One of the projects *we* need to get going, when they do, is developing some bibliographies and evaluations of sources. I think that will be a "linked project" to the "Build A Better Profile" Project.
- One reason for the bibliographies (and in our imagination, will be a drop down list of selectable sources that leads directly to the electronic stored version, either on geni's site or a good digital repository such as is because of the enhancements to "documents" Geni will also be implementing.
.... they will include advanced search, tag and sorting capability. For example:
.... I load to a Project an original document, say a census report. I've associated it with both individual profiles and a Project.
.... Through a Project, say Ward 10 Manhattan 1870, we'll have multiple tagging to associate a range of profiles *automatically* with the document. And hopefully have it as a verified "fact" and also on the "residence" time line (I'm getting ahead of myself and into wish-land:)).

Nice profile, Ashley! You did what Tammy and I are talking about: pulled out the relevant and interesting data. This is marketing and engages the casual browser without overwhelming someone. It's nicely formatted and easy to read.

My caveat is that I want to see listed, in every "overview," the basic genealogical data.

There is a very practical reason for this: without that information in the text, there is no real way of knowing that the profile is accurate, sourced, matches with what the data entry "says" it is, etc. And without that info the proliferation of mis merges will only continue and worsen.

We've asked geni to auto-populate from the "basics" tab as a stamp, but really that's just a base. We need sourced data and to know what the source is.

OK I need to get this project open! I'll be back in a minute with the links. All are welcome and encouraged to join and refine.

1/14/2011 at 5:32 PM

I didn't address the "fair use / copyright" laws. This is what my understanding is (quite layman):

-- facts are not copyrightable
-- presentation and narrative is

In other words, let's say I use an "family tree" site for my information.

- I reformat the basic facts (dates, relationships) in the order and way I will show in the Build a Better Profile Project.
- I have, in every profile I work on, a section I call "Links." I copy & paste the URL of the website there.
- If the site quotes from / references underlying data: for example, LDS / IGI data, I put that information in under a "Sources" section.
- If there is a footnote or citation, I make a section for that as well, auto numbered and referring back to the "Source" data.
- If I quote narrative, I use quote marks and reference the author and site at the TOP of the quote block. I even do this for Wikipedia C&P (which I believe is freely copy-able under Commons Licensing, but I want to give the pointing URL *regardless* -- because, you know, go argue with Wiki and / or fix it *there,* don't bother me about it, I'm just quoting. :) :) )

I believe that formatting and attributing in this way covers ethics, fairplay and copyright law appropriately.

I have also gotten less sloppy about images and take the time to attribute them (hopefully) correctly, even when I've found them in a google image search. The details behind images are very interesting data anyway so well worth the time it takes.

1/14/2011 at 6:00 PM

Here's a blatant plug for a book I haven't read yet but seems to be used as the de-facto reference for source citations for genealogy research. There are older citations guidelines but this one was written post-internet so it supposedly has some good info that would be useful.


1/14/2011 at 7:08 PM

Erica, in response to basic genealogical data in the overview:

I think that was my original idea for a "Vital Information" section, but I wasn't sure a) that replicating what's already written above was necessary (I see and agree with your point, though) or b) how to address situations where a date/location isn't clear without more detailed narrative. In those situations, I usually try to give a list of the possibilities and then briefly explain what scholars believe to be most likely. (Not sure if that makes sense the way I'm explaining it...) But I'll poke around through some of the profiles I've done and see if I can come up with something that works.

And yes, your understanding of fair use/copyright is correct. Sharing information is fine; sharing purely C&Ped material is not UNLESS the information is no longer governed by copyright. A lot of older genealogies, like the popular New England ones from the 1800s when genealogy was in vogue, are okay to copy directly from -- but they still need to be cited. Here are two excellent, clear breakdowns of what is and isn't okay: (my favorite -- all researchers should bookmark or print this) (more in-depth)

1/15/2011 at 6:28 PM

Ashley Odell - Thanks for the link to your Walter Harris profile. I like the bolded Header approach with interesting and logical titles and bite size chunks.

I have been guilty of what you point out (C&P, sometimes without attribution and sometimes of not the most verified source). When I start working on a profile, I use the "About Me" to information I want to be able to see and refer to, sometimes the information is a work in progress. As I learn more, I try to add better sources and to include the sources, which I understand should be in a tab. What I usually C&P are simply the spousal information and a list of children and their birth dates / locations. That is for my use during work on that part of the family and usually gets verified and cleaned up, albeit slowly.

In families where there is not a lot of work, with recent generations, a cousin's website might be the best place to begin and be 80% correct in fact.

I agree about making sure to cite from the older genealogies. Your source tells others how reliable the information is.

Private User
1/15/2011 at 6:40 PM


You make excellent points about ways to improve the information for
the Geni "About Me".

Can you tell me how to make "bold" print for this purpose?

Ethel Johanna Myers

1/15/2011 at 7:23 PM

Hatte, we *all* do things in profiles we probably shouldn't -- I'm certainly no different. When I first joined Geni, I didn't even realize there was a big tree, so I was creating profiles without adding my sources because I knew I had paper copies of everything. Now I regret that because I'm having to go back and edit all of the profiles I made originally. So no need to feel guilty for anything -- it's a learning process for all of us. :)

Ethel, there are numerous formatting options available in the editing interface. I believe they only don't show up if you're on a very slow connection or trying to update via mobile. I've made a labelled screencap for you here:

Personally, I do not like the massive headers and think simply bolding text works fine for that purpose.

Private User
1/17/2011 at 12:41 PM

I see the suggestion above to Link to a Website rather than copy-and-paste. BUT - websites are deleted, changed, etc. So, just having a link is no guarantee of info being found. AND if you use a Link under Documents, counting on the "picture" geni makes of the site -- often the right-hand side is cut off, thus eliminating much of the info wanted. I have had a ticket in for this latter for a long time now.

1/17/2011 at 12:49 PM

Let me be really clear.

Let's say it's a Rootsweb genealogy site. Generally that information is "public domain / public record" - so it's fine to copy & paste from it. I do it a lot and have found that Rootsweb sites are based on good primary or secondary sources. Unfortunately though that may not be obvious because ... they didn't cite their sources. :)

So when I do a Rootsweb search now I tick off "with source" and find the underlying citation. If it's to an tree, I don't consider it as valid.

1/17/2011 at 12:50 PM

P.S. and yes, Rootsweb data (if you think it's good) *should* be copied over (and re-formatted and cited with the link). They (and famlytree maker reports etc) may have a short internet life, and that's a shame.

1/17/2011 at 1:09 PM


I realize I didn't address the ambiguity / unknown point you made:

" ... b) how to address situations where a date/location isn't clear without more detailed narrative ..."

If I have formed an opinion, I footnote it in the summary and have a "Discussion" section presenting the arguments for an against, quoting "experts" and so on. I then put in my own conclusion and what the geni profile reflects.

BTW I only would do it this way for my own ancestors. If they're not mine it's someone else's headache to figure out and I would just go with "unknown" as the geni "official" version until someone else argues / persuades otherwise. So many grandmothers, so little time ....

Here's an example:

Cecily Reynolds

This lady literally took me weeks to sort out, much dialog with another Reynolds descendant, and even a look / see by Noah Tutak. Even now though I'm not sure we have her right -- she very well *could* have been married a 4th & 5th (and more) times.

But I do think the consensus and the research brings us closer to likely reality than what was there before ... or even what else is out there on the internet about her.

OK I"m proud of her, even if I did lose my more direct relationship. :(

1/17/2011 at 4:06 PM


Regarding the use of the "Documents" page...I don't think the suggestion was to put a link only there. I think the suggestion was that, if you're going to C&P a massive amount of information, create an actual text file and upload it in the Documents section, and include a link in the text file to show the source of your information. Basically, do exactly what people already do with the "About" field, but in a location more appropriate for it. Does that make more sense?


I think you hit on the underlying point nicely -- formatting. Dates, names, locations, and so on are not copyrighted, so taking them (with attribution) is fine. But when you get nothing but a giant trail of badly formatted text, that should be cleaned up and, if possible/appropriate, condensed for the "About" section.

1/17/2011 at 6:41 PM

Very much agreed! That is exactly "phase 2" of the "Master Profile" mission, in fact.

There's a lot of good info in Geni, but who can see it behind all the Wikipedia copy & paste, duplicated a zillion times, fallen apart formatting?

I very much appreciate the the "about cleanup" project and in fact am using the Kings of Scotland: House of Stewart as a small scale implementation. We're busy cleaning up! Just watch and see!!!

We have to master Wiki formatting first. Your screen cap is very helpful there.

I am shortly going to do a "Make a Better Profile" Project, I have lots of notes. The idea is a profile would graduate from being tagged as needing cleanup, thru the Make a Better project, to be proudly burnished, shined and presented in the "Pimp my profile!" project.

Private User
1/17/2011 at 8:14 PM

As Stebbing said above....Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills is the standard for documenting sources and the Legacy genealogy program does a good job of having templets based on her work if you want to see examples of templets for sourcing in use.
I would like to see all the info, I just want it sourced.
I am not too keen on reading LOTS of info.....I prefer a summary. On the other hand, if the evidence is lacking, I would like to read the argument as to why someone thinks this ancestor, married this or that person, or which children belonged to which spouse, etc. I want to know what is based on sources and what is based on conjecture in that argument.

1/17/2011 at 8:27 PM

Yes, it's important to distinguish between "hard evidence" and "my conclusions." And I agree about the summary. That's why they invented footnotes -- for the details.

1/18/2011 at 12:21 AM

I am new to Geni and excited about all the possibilities here. I'm so glad to read all these posts before adding tons of info to my family profiles. I would like to request someone choosing a less controversial title to the "Pimp My Profile" section. 'Pimp' is an obviously popular word but many are trying to relay the message that pimping is abusive, illegal and derogatory. It's definitely a term specifically targeted by modern abolitionists fighting to end human trafficking. Hopefully you can avoid any controversy and eliminate confusion before it starts. Thank you all for your work and contributions here. Can't wait to really get started!

1/18/2011 at 3:03 PM

Yes, you're right, and thanks for the catch on that. It's informal speech which shouldn't be the formal name of a family site.

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