29 October 2011

Defining Research, Part One

"Oh, it's my ancestry back to Eve!"
Recently, James Tanner over at Genealogy's Star discussed what he meant when he used the word "research." Now, I appreciate these sort of symantics-driven posts, because, as in most arenas of life, it is always important to define your terms before you begin any sort of discussion. And, as genealogy is full of the necessity of discussion (be it on blogs, on mailing lists, or via email), defining the word "research" certainly is key.

Why? I'd like to proffer an example of a recent exchange I had with a researcher who contacted me regarding information I have on an Ancestry tree. In this instance, note carefully the use of the word "research" by the person who wrote to me:

In this case, a woman wrote to me to notify me that some of my dates and locations for a man in my family tree were wrong. I had been researching this man for a little over five years, concentrating in this time on his life in the United States after his immigration. This woman speculated that my information was inaccurate, due to what her "research" had revealed.

Her "research," as it turned out, consisted of a naturalization index card she had found on Ancestry, as well as family information she had found on various family trees online (all of which, I would note, are iterations of my own research into this hitherto un-digitized family).

My information was faulty, she said, because unlike my family tree information which said that this man had arrived in the United States from his birthplace of Milan in 1839, the naturalization index card that she had found on Ancestry showed that he had arrived in 1848 and was from Austria. My dates, she said, seemed "wrong."

Now, in this case, the extent of "research" that had led this woman to seek to clarify/correct my own research was, it seemed, a piece of indexed information that she had found on Ancestry. I was happy to send along a scan of the gentleman's entire naturalization file which I had received from the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court's office. The file showed that the man in question had, indeed, arrived in 1839, although his declaration of intent was filed in 1848--this date was used on the naturalization card as the man's date of arrival in the United States.

I was also happy to point out to this researcher that the naturalization card was somewhat misleading in suggesting that the man was from Austria; in fact, as per the naturalization file, when he became a US citizen, he swore to revoke any and all allegiance to The Emperor of Austria, who, at the time of the man's naturalization in 1854, ruled over Milan as part of the Austrian empire.

Now, I concede that the naturalization card was somewhat misleading (and a good lesson as to how indexes can lead us to reach improper conclusions in our research). I also applaud her natural tendency to question the information she saw in my tree (I do, I'm sure, have some mistakes in there), but I also question this person's quickness to "correct" without having performed a modicum of true research on her own.

The key word here is "research." To my mind, calling this woman's work "research" is an abuse of the word, if only because what she had done was only half of the process deserving of that word. "Performing a search," "taking an overview of available information," or even "surveying previous research" is, of course, part of the research process. But locating an online family tree and preparing to undermine that research based on research that hasn't even been performed seems overeager at best, a slippery slope toward shoddy research at worst.

I'm happy (sarcastically) to report that the 15-page Genealogy Report regarding this matter that I sent this researcher has now been faithfully transcribed by her into her family tree, without attribution or documentation as to where she obtained the initial research. Of course, seeing as how I emailed her five years worth of research (along with scans) intending to bring her up to speed, and she never took the time to write and thank me for taking time to do so.... well, the move to proudly display my work as her own doesn't surprise me much.

It is, apparently, all part of her diligent "research."


Sheri said...

A first class example of why one MUST ALWAYS go / try to find / consult the original record or document. I am going to assume that the naturalization index card had reference to where the original document was located. That woman should have located and reviewed the original record. Had she done that, she would probably not have contacted you. Of course then your work would not have been published for all the world to see and admire. (she snarkily says with as much sarcasism as the author of this post :) )

Greta Koehl said...

Oh, my, an experience like this would make my blood boil. Not the ignorance part so much as the plagiarism and the lack of manners. I've seen a similar phenomenon. I was the first person who did the research and found one of my ggg-grandfathers. The information is still scant, so I am conservative in claims about what we know of him. Now I see him in a number of family trees, and they give a date of birth of 1778. Where they got this, I don't know, but I am fairly sure his DOB is at least 10 years before this. As I look through their trees for this line, it appears that they have patched together information from some old online family trees, because they don't have the maiden name of the wife of my gg-grandfather in this line (which I have). My Ancestry tree for this line is private, because I do not want to make the plagiarism easy; they will have to copy the information from my blog and enter it themselves if they want to copy my research. We are probably lucky that most plagiarists are so lazy. Oh, yeah, I guess that's what makes them plagiarists in the first place.... (P.S. - Can you put a comment on her tree?)

Karen said...

Click & Claim genealogy is alive & well on the internet. Whether it be an image on ancestry or someone's family tree. I seriously doubt that most "click & Claimers" even know how to do serious research. Sad but true!
Good manners never go out of style, yet is seems many in the genealogical community have forgotten theirs all together. Sad state of todays world.
Nice post! Thank you!

Michael Hait said...

Unfortunately this other researcher had reached a conclusion that did not hold up to any part of the Genealogical Proof Standard. But I would actually applaud her for her willingness to correct what she saw as faulty information. How many of us simply roll our eyes when we see incorrect information online, though? How many of us take the time to contact those who have posted incorrect information online? I know I only rarely do so. I usually ignore the bad information, and privately complain about it, but I take no steps to correct it.