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Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Focused Versus Diffuse Research,” OnBoard 17 (September 2011).

When research begins with a specific question, answering it becomes the research goal or problem. Focused research can be more systematic and efficient than a “shotgun” approach, and specific research questions increase the likelihood of successful outcomes. This is true for all research fields, including genealogy.

Without focused questions, genealogical analysis, correlation, and case building are impossible. Genealogical evidence exists because it provides a possible answer to a research question (not necessarily a complete or correct answer—just a possibility). When researchers consider information that may answer their research questions directly—inferring that an information item means what it say—they use direct evidence. When they consider information that may answer their research questions indirectly—inferring a meaning suggested but not stated by an information item—genealogists use indirect evidence. Without research questions and their possible answers, evidence would not exist.

For this reason, The BCG Application Guide’s requirement 3-C asks new applicants to “submit a statement identifying a research focus” for their BCG-supplied document.1 The Guide also requires such a statement for the applicant-selected document. Although these items are required, judges do not evaluate them directly. The statements enable valid applicant responses to requirements that judges do evaluate:

  • Requirement 3-D asks applicants to “submit an analysis of the data in the document related to the research problem proposed in item 3-C.”2 The question taps knowledge of research and evidence, which—as described above—does not exist where a question and answer are absent. Focused research questions in requirement 3-C help applicants demonstrate skill in (1) developing useful research goals, (2) discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information, and (3) using relevant information for direct and indirect evidence. If, on the other hand, applicants fail to propose a targeted research question or interpret requirement 3-D broadly (to mean, for example, “tell everything you can about this source”), they imply they do not know how to focus research and have little opportunity to demonstrate discrimination of relevant information and identification of relevant evidence. This lack of specificity jeopardizes their application’s success.
  • Requirement 3-E asks applicants to “submit a research plan (one page or less) describing the first steps for continuing research to resolve the problem define in 3-C.”3 A focused 3-C question makes it possible to outline a cogent, practical, and likely effective research plan. Broad 3-C questions often lead to long, scattershot research plans that do not reflect the fields best practices.

For an example, see the sidebar. “Meets Standards” descriptors from three rubrics describe this example. All three refer BCG judges to the applicant’s requirement 3-C focus:

  • DW7. The analysis identifies all significant information in the document relevant to the research focus specified in requirement 3-C…
  • DW8. The analysis addresses all direct and indirect evidence relevant to the research focus specified in requirement 3-C.
  • DW9. The research plan cites the most commonly used sources relevant to the research focus described in requirement 3-C; and it gives high priority to the most logical sources.4

Genealogical Standard 5 refers to “carefully analyzing and defining the question an investigation is intended to answer.”5 Focused research questions are more likely than broad or diffuse goals to meet this standard. Any genealogical research—whether or not it is for a BCG application portfolio—benefits from focused goals.


Example: Document Work with a Focused Research Question

Document:* Preston, Connecticut, Deed Book 9:115; Town Hall, Preston; microfilm5,385, Family History Library (FHL), Salt Lake City. On 13 June 1769 Josiah Burton and Mary his wife, living in “Norwich in the County of Cumberland and the Province of New York” (today’s Norwich, Vermont) sold, for twelve pounds and ten shillings, to Samuel Leonard of Preston, twelve and a half acres in Preston, Connecticut. Both Josiah and Mary signed their names to the deed.

Requirement 3-C (Research Focus)
Who were the parents of Josiah Burton’s wife Mary?

Requirement 3-D (Analysis)

  • Source. The deed book contains a handwritten copy of the original deed that probably was returned to the purchaser and subsequently lost. This record, therefore, likely provides the best available evidence of the transaction it represents. Recorded by a trained and experienced public official doing his job and presented and approved in open court, it likely is accurate as to date, locations, and other specifics. Error is possible but unlikely.
  • Information. Josiah and Mary may have lived on the land before moving to New York/Vermont, or they may have inherited it before or after their move. In either case, they likely had firsthand knowledge of the land, how it came into their hands, and why they are entitled to sell it. They are eyewitnesses to its sale.
  • Evidence. The record provides direct evidence of the sale, but that is not the question at hand. The deed might contain indirect evidence of Mary’s parentage. For example, she and Josiah might be selling land she inherited from a parent, grandparent, sibling, or other relative. Also, purchaser Samuel Leonard might be related to Mary, perhaps as a sibling or co-heir. The witnesses’ identities, the land’s location, or its description might also provide indirect evidence of Mary’s parentage.

Requirement 3-E (Research Plan)

  1. “Public Member Trees,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com). Search for Josiah Burton of Connecticut or Vermont with wife Mary.
  2. Preston, Conn., Record of Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1–2 (covering 1672–1848); Town Hall, Preston; microfilm 1,311,194, Family History Library (FHL), Salt Lake City. Search volume indexes for Burton and Leonard and most specifically for Josiah Burton with wife Mary.
  3. Preston, Conn., General Index [to land records]; Town Hall, Preston; FHL microfilm 5,392. Search for Burton and Leonard entries.
  4. Norwich District Probate Court, Conn., Probate Records 1–4 (covering 1748–1773); Town Hall, Norwich, Conn.; FHL microfilms 5,054–5. Search volume indexes for Burton and Leonard in Preston and other towns in this probate district.
  5. FamilySearch (http://www.familysearch.org). Search the Family History Library catalog for Burton and Leonard family histories set in Connecticut or Vermont.

* This is not the full abstract required for requirement 3-B.


1. “The BCG Application Guide,” PDF, p. 4, Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertifiation.org/brochures/BCGAppGuide2011.pdf : downloaded 25 October 2011).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. “Rubrics for Evaluating New Applications for BCG Certification, PDF, p. 2, Board for Certification of Genealogists (http://www.bcgcertification.org/certification/BCGNewAppRubricsDec2010.pdf : downloaded 25 October 2011).
5. Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry, 2000), 5.

Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.