Disguising direct quotes is bad, not good

+21 votes
I am often seeing cases where articles which used to have long quotes have had those quotes deliberately adapted so that they are less obviously quotes, and now look like someone on Wikitree wrote them! This is not good!!

Can we agree that using less direct quotes is a LOWER priority than making SURE that all direct quotes are CLEARLY SHOWN as direct quotes? I see no problem leaving quotes in, in 99% of the cases I see. I see big problems with tweaking them to disguise them!!

Wikitree articles like many articles on wikis and genealogy websites, often contain quotes. While this is sometimes not ideal, honestly I think this is acceptable, especially when an article is still being built up, and AS LONG AS the source of the quotation is properly cited.

Of course EXTREMELY long quotations might sometimes go overboard, but I think talk of copyright violations are overdone and misunderstood. Long quotes should often be reduced for reasons of clarity and good format. The accusation I think Wikitree and its editors could unfortunately more rightfully be accused of is PLAGIARISM, not COPYRIGHT violation. And this seems to be important to point out because getting these priorities wrong seems to be leading to efforts going in the wrong direction.

In the medieval/pre-1500 area this is another case where I fear that our drive in recent years to be a bit more strict has sometimes led to new problems. Partly this seems to come from an emphasis on "rules" which are not always easy to write, without the necessary investment in making the "spirit of the rules" clear to editors.

I think we might need to talk more about the thinking behind the imperfectly written rules, and that rules were actually trying to achieve and why.
in Policy and Style by Andrew Lancaster G2G6 Pilot (118k points)
I think this style must be encouraged in American schools.  Take snippets from books, paste straight into the main body text, add a citation to each snippet to say where you found it.

The simplest improvement would be to make each snippet a bullet point.  Then at least they'd be disconnected. They wouldn't look like they're supposed to be a running narrative in the writer's own voice.
But wouldn't that also be disguising the source? I can't see why we can't just clearly and openly state that something is a quote from another source. If we are using it, then do it openly?

I think there is too much amateur legal advice about avoiding copyright claims on wikitree.com, and not enough common sense about just being honest and clear.
RJ - I must be a product of that school. I see nothing wrong with "Take snippets from books, paste straight into the main body text, add a citation to each snippet to say where you found it." When I'm writing a biography, I got each fact from somewhere (granted, if I'm taking the words, not just the facts, I'll use quote marks - is that the point you're making that I missed? that the snippets are being lifted and not shown in quotes?)

I think that's fine Liz, although maybe we are all misunderstanding each other. The only thing I would say, but this is a different more perfectionist topic going beyond the original post, is that I sometimes find it awkward in some of the better medieval profiles, to see a very short article with only basic information, and several obviously good sources, that for example every sentence has separate footnotes to all of the good sources, every time. I think most reviewers for real publications insist on trying to keep the number of footnotes done in such cases, for example by having one footnote at the end of a paragraph, which contains all the necessary citations in that one footnote. But this is a generalization. What I means is something like:

:"Harscoit was born about 1212.[1][2][3] He fought on the French side at the battle of Lincoln.[1][2][3] His lands were forfeited but eventually inherited by his son and heir William before 1260.[1][2][3]"

Wow. I should write historical fiction. Anyway, my point here would only be that I am a little concerned sometimes that the one fact per one footnote concept sometimes gets taken to an extreme where it actually becomes more difficult to read, re-check etc. 

(This is why I dare to sometimes use old-fashioned wording like "As demonstrated by Keats-Rohan (p.333) and Sanders (p.25)...". Some editors seem to have been led to believe that such extra words, or inline citations without footnotes, are a crime against Wikitree and that such mention of actual historians or genealogists should only appear in footnotes or a research notes section!)

I did what you're mentioning almost verbatim about 5 years ago, give or take a year. I orphaned nearly all my pre-1500 profiles so that someone could feel empowered to improve and/or adopt those profiles.

Are you seeing profiles created in 2020 that are using this same format?

The citations I did at the time are certainly a bit much, but, as Liz mentioned, I would think simply copying and pasting without modification would be worse than modifying to a different format and still giving credit to the source.
Jayme I am not sure, but I think we agree. I don't see a problem with quoting a block of text if it is relevant and useful, but I DO see a problem with putting the text in with no clear indication that it was not the original work of Wikitree editors.

In some cases there are blocks of texts which kind of look like they are a quote, but it is not easy for a normal reader to guess where it is from. This is also not good.

I don't think for example that ONLY adding a footnote to a block of text is enough. There should be something in the main body itself, apart from the block of text and a footnote number, in order to make it clear this is NOT original work of Wikitree.

But clearly there are many cases where we don't even have that footnote.

how do you determine what is what you call "disguising" and what is paraphrasing?  One person's disguise may be another person's paraphrase.

I frequently read several articles, or pages, or whatevers, make notes of the most salient points, then rewrite the whole in my own words.  On several occasions I have realised that how I wrote whatever is identical to how it was originally written because there really is only one way to say it.  How many different ways, after all, can you say x was born on date in place to parents?

If I use direct quotes, I add a source for that quote.

That is true and very relevant for the types of texts we are often writing. For those types of simple short sentences I constantly see identical wording in different printed books, so this is not just here. But honestly I think copyright concerns for words like "he was born in 1750" are basically zero.

The concerns of this thread arise with bigger quotes.

2 Answers

+4 votes
Are you saying that the WT recommended block quote format (which indents the entire quote to set it off from the rest of the text, but also instructs no use of quotation marks) is the problem? When I use it I introduce with something like, "According to ___:"


and there is always a citation inside the </blockquote> at the end. Looks elegant and is surely clearly a quotation.
by Stephanie Ward G2G6 Pilot (103k points)
I may be wrong, but I don't think that what Andrew is after is just a matter of formatting.

At least, what "tweaking them to disguise them" makes me think of is tweaks like little changes of word order, swapping of synonyms and similar editorial changes, which would (in Google terms) disguise a direct copy from Wikipedia (or similar).

Yes, but another aspect is concerning formatting, but also in the sense of misleading formatting.

A direct quote should SOMEHOW be clearly marked. For example (or all of these):

  • Indented compare to other text
  • Make sure there is other text! If the article is made of one big quote then at least add introductions such as "According to Mr Smith, who wrote the book in the footnotes/bibliography below:
  • Quotes around the direct quote, or italicised (normally not both).
Instead I am seeing that a large block originally pasted in gets "cleaned up" by splitting it into pieces, perhaps giving new sub-titles as if each sentence was written for a different section of the Wikitree article, having the original footnotes re-done to look like the Wikitree editor read the original sources. etc.
Put simply, it is better to make sure the block quote is clearly marked as one, than to disguise it as original work in any way. (Or even to do something which others might accuse of looking like that's what you were doing.)
ah. You and I have different styles Andrew, and I think it comes from the difference between online publication and print publication. The style you prefer (holding down number of footnotes/endnotes - which can be a pain to look up in print but not on a webpage) and wording of the biography (which remains the same once published in print but definitely not in a wiki environment). There's also the definition of "inline citation" which means something different in WikiTree (which is referring to the ref tags) than elsewhere.

The example you gave is a bit extreme and I would probably at least drop the first tow sets of 1,2,3s and let that last apply to the whole paragraph.

If I understand your most recent comment, though, the original question was referring to something broader, so I'll leave you to get the conversation back on track :D

Cheers, Liz
1. Liz I think I use and accept a lot of different styles, and try to work within the guidelines and within the styles being used by others.

But I think some of the habits common on Wikitree are not found widely accepted online or in printed format. And I think, whatever we think is normal, our writing should ALWAYS aim at things like clarity, conciseness, verifiability, and a format that our colleagues can also easily work with.

In other words, making things simpler and shorter is an aim of pretty-much all writing?

2. Most importantly, anyway, you are right, the original post here is about something really problematic and now you and I are talking about a finer detail. I am saying I do see such extreme cases.

3. One last thing I'd like to insist on: Wikitree can not, surely, redefine the usage of terms like "inline citation". In fact, a problem lurking in the background here is that good citations, avoiding copyright and what plagiarism is etc, are all norms which come from OUTSIDE Wikitree, and Wikitree itself is NOT GOOD at explaining such things.

This is creating a sort of parallel reality where people don't think of things in terms of the real end goals (good genealogy, avoiding plagiarism, avoiding copyright infringement) but just following the internal Wikitree rules whether they make sense or not. That is a pattern I see when I look at a lot of things that don't seem to get better on Wikitree.

So it is better to read outside Wikitree to get ideas about these things. Wikitree's internal advice and guidelines is a work in progress, and I think it will be for some time.
+6 votes
well, haven't dealt with medieval profiles, so on that aspect I can't comment.  But I often see profiles where the ''bio'' is lifted straight from another source, credited or not.  

Certain sources, such as the Biographi.ca site, which is based on the encyclopedic Biographies done by U of Toronto and U of Laval in conjunction, have a note stating one can do full citation of the text, as long as proper source attribution is done, with 2 formats given on how they should be cited.

Other sites clearly state their work is copyrighted.  The whole point of writing a biography is to tell the tale anew, one can cite specific authors on bits and pieces without needing to copy their wording exactly.  From prior discussions (I forget when and where), my recollection was that we were encouraged to write original bios rather than just copy/paste.  As long as where the data comes from is properly cited, I don't see what the problem is that you are addressing.  

I sometimes include statements like ''according to xyz the place was zzz, according to abc it was aaa''. with source citations entered.  This is when there is uncertainty or dispute among sources.  One does not have to quote them verbatim.
by Danielle Liard G2G6 Pilot (513k points)

I think you may be falling into what is called ''proc├Ęs d'intention'' which roughly translates as ''trial of intentions'', ie attributing motives, whether rightly or wrongly is not the question.

You started this discussion with this:

I am often seeing cases where articles which used to have long quotes have had those quotes deliberately adapted so that they are less obviously quotes, and now look like someone on Wikitree wrote them! This is not good!!

This is your conclusion, not necessarily what happened.  Whoever edited may have deemed the whole quote not appropriate, or missing data, or inferring something, all sorts of variations possible.  We are actually encouraged to write our own bios, not just copy from somebody else.  

Even outside of copyright issues, which are one of these tangled items, since each country has its own laws and definitions on the subject, if I go and say author xyz said this about my man, but author abc said that about him, I am not obligated to quote everything verbatim that authors xyz and abc said, I can summarize their words.  It's called editing.  And there is nothing wrong with it.

I recently submitted a correction to a Dictionary of Biography where the error has been sitting there (in print as well as online) since at least the 1970s.  This same error was on Wikipedia, where I corrected it.  I wrote the same thing in the biography of the Wikitree profile.  Now, who can tell which came first? My words on Wikitree, or the words on Wikipedia, or the DoB (once corrected)?  Which is the quote, and which the original?

As Danielle points out, we need to be careful about ascribing motives to actions that may not be correct.  And paraphrasing rather than verbatim is perfectly acceptable, so long as you attribute where you found the  original information thus paraphrased.

No Danielle, I am not lying and I am not stupid. I am not going to play the game of showing examples, but examples of quotes being hidden happen in live action on Wikitree and can be followed edit by edit. Furthermore direct quotes which are not marked as direct quotes are not the same as paraphrases, and I do understand the difference. Notice how I mentioned cases which can be noticed because of the use of 19th century wording and footnotes that have not yet been removed.

Do you deny this ever happens?

And even if you say this never happens, why can't you at least agree that it should not? I have asked you twice now if you can agree and you won't answer.

Melanie we should never fix the text in any direct quote, and that includes in Wikipedia and Wikitree. If a source contains a mistake we should not quote it for that text at all.

Can you name the Wikitree and Wikipedia articles?

I did NOT fix a QUOTE.  I corrected an error.
Perhaps I misunderstand. So you removed the quote (or part of it) in Wikitree and Wikipedia and replaced it with something else? That would make more sense.


I wrote up a biography for a profile on Wikitree.  While doing that I discovered that a part of the information I was using, gleaned from multiple places including Wikipedia and a Dictionary of Biography, contained what was, to me, a glaring error of timing.*

I corrected the error on Wikipedia, rewriting the text to make the correction "fit". Then I contacted the DoB and referred them to the error on their page and my correction on Wikipedia. (I have already been thanked, and assured the correction will be made.)

My question to this thread was - how can you tell if the text in the WT profile's biography is a direct quote of the new text on Wikipedia, or if Wikipedia is a quote of the biography I wrote here. 


* As an example - Major John Smith was on duty in London for the coronation of William IV on the 26th June 1830.  The following January he was charged with assault, and sentenced.  By February he was languishing in the hulks, and by the end of August-beginning of September he was ill to the point of death.

(The above is made up.  It is an example only.)

I decide to use this information, but realise there is a (to me) glaring error.  So I set about correcting the error.

Can you tell me what is wrong with the above "quote"?

Also - once the correction to the item on Wikipedia is made, which mimics almost exactly the words I wrote for the biography - how do you tell which is quoting which?

Melanie, I'm now uncertain if I understand exactly what happened, so I'll just make notes.

1. Not a Wikitree topic, but interesting for the contrast. On Wikipedia you should not input information which is based on your own original research, even if it is good research. We are supposed to summarize what has been published. If all publications contain glaring errors, we are not supposed to put anything until someone publishes something better. On Wikitree we ARE allowed to research.

2. If I understand correctly, you did not correct a direct quote from a publication. You wrote a text yourself, which cited one or more publications as sources. Correct? And you used similar or identical words on WT and WP? I think this happens a lot, and it is kind of an "advanced" issue compared to the more basic problems I was trying to raise. However, on Wikipedia, when an editor copies a handy sentence from one article to a related one, technically you are at least supposed to mention you are doing this in your edit summary.

In reality however, I think that as long as we are talking a sentence or two, and they were written at roughly the same time by the same person, this is a rather academic concern and not going to cause any major problem. I can very much understand this type of case because I often work with several windows open on WT and WP, updating several articles at once.

But technically (a) we can't quote Wikitree on to Wikipedia, so we should supposedly write a new text, although of course if it is just a few words like "was born in" then that is not the issue; (b) it seems acceptable to quote Wikipedia in Wikitree, but then it should be clear we are making a quote of course.  :)

There is a bit of a grey area here then. To determine if something is a quote or a paraphrase there is a question of how close the wording is, and how large and original is the text is. A series of commas and ands, even "died in" and "lived in" between numbers is not really an original text for example, and so not relevant to this type of concern about quoting. (The data, such as dates and numbers, should be sourced of course.)

It is often simplest to just make something a clear and open quote.

Andrew, I neither said you were lying nor stupid, so I don't know where that comes from.

What you are basically addressing here is a matter of editing style, and each person will view it differently.  So to answer your last question, I do not agree that such ''should not happen'', since the whole subject as you have brought it up is frankly rather vague and nebulous.

Danielle, no definitely not. Hiding a quote by making it look like original work done within Wikitree is not just a matter of personal preference. It is also not vague and nebulous, but very common on Wikitree. 

A simple example for the sake of this discussion would be formatting a direct quote to look like normal text written here on Wikitree for the first time. 

First, such cases are unethical and undoubtedly against various more formal laws as well. They would clearly be BOTH copyright violation AND plagiarism.

Second, even in cases where it happens with some kind of good intentions and misunderstandings, it actually sets us back rather than saving any time, because whereas a poor citation in some other sense can be easily spotted and fixed, these are literally hidden as original work.

In contrast, the danger of copyright violations on a website with a amateur research community like this, which is 99% material that is fully public on the internet, is not going to be dramatic as long as all direct quotes are clearly direct quotes and not hidden. 

So this is not a grey zone. All quotations should be clearly marked as quotations in some way. It is much worse to hide a quotation than to for example make an ugly quotation, or one that people think is too big.

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