How do I cite a genealogy research conclusion?

I hope that my recent posts defining conclusions and differentiating between simple and complex genealogical conclusions helped researchers to better understand the nature of what we aim for in our research. As scholarly or aspiring professional genealogists we should always attempt to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, and its condition that we arrive at a “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”

When we reach a conclusion the question is then: how do we cite them?

Many genealogists are familiar with the terms direct evidence and indirect evidence. Simplified, direct evidence is evidence–information from a document, for example–that states explicitly the solution to a genealogical problem. Indirect evidence is evidence that does not state explicitly the solution to a genealogical problem, but forms part of a larger proof argument.

These terms coincide slightly with the terms simple conclusion and complex conclusion. A simple conclusion–what is generally called a “fact”–can be reached when we have direct evidence that can be assessed as reliable information. For example, the date of death as reported on a death certificate can generally be deemed reliable. On the other hand, the date of birth on the same death certificate, unless provided by one of the parents, would generally be deemed as far less reliable.

In the absence of reliable direct evidence, we as genealogists must “go the extra mile” to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard in forming complex conclusions. This does not necessarily mean that the conclusion has to be difficult. The proof argument concerning Gabriel Diggs’s date of birth is a relatively straightforward argument. By meeting the conditions of the Standard even on straightforward and simple cases of indirect or conflicting evidence, not only do we strengthen the overall reliability and accuracy of our research, but we also develop the analytical skills and thought processes necessary to attack far more difficult cases.

Back to the original question: how do I cite a research conclusion?

In general, simple conclusions are easy to cite. Each established fact only needs cite the single most reliable source of direct evidence. If multiple sources of reliable direct evidence exist, we can also cite the corroborating sources. How we cite these sources in our written family histories, our genealogy databases, and anything else we produce remains the same.

The problem arises when trying to cite a complex conclusion. If, for example, we reach a conclusion that comes from examining multiple records with indirect and/or conflicting evidence, how would we cite this? Take another look at the Diggs example. The conclusion that I reached through examination and analysis of all sources was not stated explicitly in any single record.

In a professional written product, such as a client report or a case study for publication, we would cite the source of each fact separately. And of course, by fact, I mean simple conclusion. Complex conclusions stem from a series of simple conclusions. In many cases, complex conclusions are built from a series of both simple and complex conclusions. We should write a proof argument in which we cite the most empirical sources for each piece of information, and produce a “coherently written conclusion.” The Diggs example uses this technique for citation.

On the other hand, if we are simply entering data into a genealogy database, or producing a detailed, multi-generation family history or genealogy, then we would use a different strategy.

When entering information into a genealogy database–whether you are an evidence-based or conclusion-based software user–you cannot enter a proof argument as a “fact” or “event” (the terms most software programs use) with a single citation. And even if you could, for a complex conclusion, this would not be appropriate.

In a family history or genealogy being compiled for a general audience (i.e. non-genealogist family members), the focus would likely be on the stories of our ancestors’ lives. While one or two proof arguments might be able to be slipped into the work, we would not really want to include all of them.

In both of these situations,  we should include abbreviated proof arguments, citing each of the records we use, in the reference notes. We should also report any conflicting evidence, any indirect evidence, etc.

Most genealogy database programs now include a notes field that would work perfectly for this purpose. (NOTE: I am unsure about the compatibility of these notes with the current GEDCOM standard.) Endnotes can be appropriate for a general-audience family history, as the information would be there for those who are interested, and can easily be skipped by those who are not interested.

If you would like to cite this post: Michael Hait, “How do I cite a genealogy research conclusion?,” Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 21 March 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Martin on March 21, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    It’s interesting that the intersection of the GPS and scholarly genealogical writing do not meet. Using your example, I would want to cite to your blog posting which has the genealogical conclusion on the birth date of Gabriel Diggs. It is very comprehensive and thoughtfully worked out. But I can’t, because it is immediately a secondary source. I can only cite to primary sources, that is, all the source you cite in the blog posting which are only genealogical facts and not a conclusion. So, in scholarly writing as it is practiced in the top genealogical journals today, I cannot cite to anything but a primary source for any fact that I provide. In order to use your posting I would have to replicate all the sources one by one and reproduce your argument in order to use it as a conclusion in an article. I couldn’t simply say “see this argument” and cite your posting.

    So effectively, you can’t cite a genealogy research conclusion, you can only write one.

    Reply

    • I wouldn’t necessarily come to the same conclusion that you have, in all cases.

      If another genealogist was working on a case study or family history that includes Gabriel Diggs, then they would be expected to conduct their own research. This would likely include directly accessing all of the same sources that I used–and the others that involve Gabriel Diggs–in order to form their conclusions. They would then cite the records that they used, write their own proof arguments, and write their own conclusions.

      On the other hand, if a genealogist were working a case study or family history that, for example, involved the parents of Gabriel’s wife, then accessing all of the same original records that I have cited in order to determine the date of birth of the husband of one of their daughters would not usually be necessary. This information is only collateral to the family and not central to the argument. It might therefore be acceptable to cite my published conclusions. I have seen this done in several scholarly journal articles, as long as it is not central to the argument.

      Part of citation practice is allowing readers to assess the quality of the source. A published case study–though a derivative source [NOTE: Sources are original or derivative; information is primary or secondary.]–written by a genealogist would be judged on its individual merits, and the merits of the genealogist, as a source. A case study in one of the scholarly journals would generally be given a higher assessment of quality, due to the stringent peer review process, than a similar article in a local genealogy newsletter. Even a blog entry by a credentialed genealogist with proven and acknowledged research ability might be given a higher assessment than a blog entry by an unknown hobbyist, or an undocumented Ancestry Family Tree. (I am not saying that any of these sources is necessarily greater or lesser than any other, simply noting how they might be assessed differently solely by their citations.)

      That being said, of course, we should note in our citation of a derivative source, if there is some issue that affects the reliability either positively or negatively. For example, a blog entry written by the granddaughter of the subject who has her own personal knowledge, as well as the knowledge of older family members, and private family documents that may not be available outside the family, would be a more reliable source than a case study written by a Board-certified genealogist in the best scholarly genealogy journal who did not have any of this material to work with, but relied solely on original government records. In citing that blog entry, it would be valuable to note the relationship of the author to the subject and the superior sources being used.

      In other words, I find it completely acceptable to cite a derivative source when (1) it is not central to the argument, and (2) it is a high-quality derivative source.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Martin on March 21, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    You may find it acceptable, but editors do not. I have just finished writing an article that needed original sources for any assertion I made no matter how tangential. It drove me crazy and may be my last article, because of such minutia.

    My point though is that I should be able to cite to your genealogical conclusion and can’t for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is derivative and not original. The fact that it is derivative is because you used the GPS to come up with a conclusion.

    Reply

  3. [...] Interesting post at Michael Hait’s blog “Planting the Seeds”/ [...]

    Reply

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