When I logged on this morning I was delighted to find that Wikipedia had already taken action ....
Once misleading or downright wrong information gets posted onto the internet there are many others people who simply echo the errors - see The Dangers of Internet Genealogy and The Myth of Stanstead Abbey. One of the problems in genealogy is that it is possible to search the internet for names and the more ignorant you are of English history, the history of surnames, and the nature of the surviving contemporary documents, the more you are to assume that people with similar names might be related.
So read on to find why I was so delighted.
Yesterday I got a message which was, in effect, complaining that I hadn't included a reference to the DeXXXX who had come over with William the Conqueror in my description of a Hertfordshire place, XXYY. (The questioner name was a variant of XXXX and I hae disguised it to avoid embarrassment)
The place name was probably derived from a land owner called XXXX first mentioned some six generations after the conquest, the place name XXYY only being first recorded (as far as I can judge) more than 500 years after the Conquest, and some 200 years after the XXXX family severed their connection with the parish.
For those of you who know my web site you will be aware that there is virtually nothing about William the Conquerer here (not even in the description of Berkhamsted, and I normally do not handle queries (see FAQ) before 1660. However I didn't bin the email but decided to look to see if the was a reason why the connection was of any great significance.
I started with a Google search and immediately came up with a Wikipedia page on XXYY which had been posted by my enquirer less that 24 hours before. I immediately noted the following.
- The text was a cut and paste job from the Victoria County History dealing with the parish of ZZZZ, in which XXYY is situated. This is a violation of Wikipedia's clearly stated instructions. It also wastes everyone's time by duplicating information which can already easily be found on Google.
- The text was presented without any acknowledgement of the source - presenting someone else's work as your own is plagiarism.
- As far as I can see he only made one addition to the original text - by expanding a reference to the XXXX family to the DeXXXX family. While it might be true that there was a connection with the someone who came over with William the Conqueror no reference is give to justify what appears to be a wild guess. This kind of manipulation of the facts is along the lines of the Chinese Whispers I mentions a few days ago.
- The second part of the material he cuts and pasted relates to the XXXX family but is in a different manor and hence is totally irrelevant to a short entry on XXYY.
- The reference footnotes from the Victoria County History tend to be extremely obscure and really need expanding if they are to be used on Wikipedia. They have been copied verbatim, suggesting that the poster did not understand them. To give a simple example he failed to update the reference to the Public Records Office to the National Archive.
- The current 19th century house XXYY is not particularly important as a building as it is not even a listed building, and there must be hundreds of similar or larger house in the county which do not have Wilipedia pages for a copied extract. The house and estate's early ownership record is unremarkable and anyone really interested would go to the online Victoria County History (or the histories by Chauncy, Clutterbuck or Cussons) rather that look in Wikipedia. If XXYY has any claim to justify a dedicated Wikipedia page this would be because of links with two very famous 20th century people. (While both these people have extensive biographies on Wikipedia neither biographies considered the link sufficiently important to mention the house by name.)
My first reaction was to notify Wikipedia of the defects in the article, but was not sure of the procedure and left it until this morning. When I logged into the Wikipedia article I found that the following message had been added.
This article or section may have been copied and pasted from [full URL], possibly in violation of Wikipedia's copyright policy. Please remedy this by editing this article to remove any non-free copyrighted content and attributing free content correctly, or flagging the content for deletion.(January 2012)
So I am now waiting to see how long it will take for the page to be deleted.
The Lesson - I have published the above (disguising all means of identifying the questioner) because it serves as a warning that information you find on the web may look professional - but may have been posted by someone who had less understanding of how to carry out and publish research than you have ...
At least Wikipedia has some checks in place. If you find an extensive family tree on the web no-one may every have checked large parts of it for accuracy. Before you copy it into your family tree remember large parts of it may have been "cut and pasted" from another family tree without checking - and this copying may already have happened. many times, errors and all, as illustrated by The Myth of Stanstead Abbey