Modern Software Experience

2011-03-29

cite selectively

That genealogy without sources is mythology does not imply that genealogy with sources isn't mythology.

genealogy without sources is mythology

The aphorism Genealogy without sources is mythology. is useful. It reminds us to back up our claims with sources, but isn't without a dark side. It is widely misunderstood as suggesting that a genealogy supported by sources is solid fact. Alas, that notion is wrong. That genealogy without sources is mythology does not imply that genealogy with sources isn't mythology.

geneathology

Genealogy without documentation is mythology introduced the concept of a geneathology, a portmanteau word derived from genealogy and mythology. An unsourced genealogy is considered mythology, and therefore known as a geneathology.
The aphorism Genealogy without sources is mythology. is generally understood as an admonition to refrain from creating geneathologies, but should also be understood as an admonition to refrain from citing geneathologies.

A genealogy that cites nothing but geneathologies does not cite any real source.

inherited

A genealogy without sources is a geneathology. A genealogy that cites geneathologies is itself a geneathology. A genealogy is only as good as the sources it cites, so the property of being a geneathology is inherited.

A genealogy with sources may look professional, but if all the cited sources are geneathologies, that initial impression is misleading. A genealogy that cites nothing but geneathologies does not cite any real source. If you tried to follow the citation chain to the original source, you'd come up empty.

cite your sources

As a genealogists, you are continually admonished by other genealogists to cite your sources. One reason for doing so is to record where you found particular information. That reason is just as valid for geneathologies as for genealogies, and arguably even more valid. When you notice conflicting information, and know that one piece of information is from a respectable source and the other is from a geneathology, you know that you can safely ignore the information from latter, as it has no credulity at all.

You should not cite geneathologies, but there are many reasons why you may have done so anyway. The most common reason is perhaps that, at the time, you did not know better and simply enthusiastically copying everything you found. Another reason may be that, apart from the lack of documentation, it did seem a solid piece of work, probably 99% correct, and it would have been a mistake to ignore all the good information in it. Yet another reason may be that it seemed worth citing, as the work itself contained ample citations; you could hardly be expected to know that what it cited wasn't worth citing.

As soon as you discover that a source is a geneathology, you should stop citing it, and relegate it to a footnote.

That last reason is a real problem. Whenever you cite a geneathology, you create a false impression of solid research; you are not only perpetuating whatever errors in the geneathology you cite contains, you are also lending it a false air of authority, which will in turn prompt others to cite or at least copy it. This behaviour leads to many geneathologies that are in perfect agreement with other. That preponderance of agreement, with several geneathologies citing the same apparently very authoritative source, will lead yet someone else to conclude that the presented information must be true…

Genealogies deserve to be cited, geneathologies do not.

That is why you, although you should cite sources, you should not cite geneathologies. As soon as you discover that a source is a geneathology, you should stop citing it, and relegate it to a footnote. That footnote should explain that you did examine this particular source and discovered that it was nothing more than a geneathology. Genealogies deserve to be cited, geneathologies do not.

geneathology support

It would be nice if genealogy software allowed you to mark a source you used as geneathology, and then automatically created such a footnote instead of the citations it creates for the sources you consider credible. It would be even nicer if the software highlighted which facts in your genealogy become unsourced when you mark a source down.

Cite genealogies, do not cite geneathologies.

conclusion

Cite your sources, but do not cite all of them. You will discover some sources to be unreliable. You will discover some ostensible genealogies to be no more than geneathologies. You may want to mention in a footnote that you examined that source,  to let the reader know that you know about its existence and did not ignore it in your search for information. You may even want to acknowledge that it provided helpful hints, but you still should not cite it.
You should only cite real sources. A geneathology isn't a real source. Cite genealogies, do not cite geneathologies.

updates

2011-06-26: Using Geneathologies

Added link to follow-up article Using Geneathologies.

links