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Michael Grant Hait Jr., CG, “Reporting Research in Progress,” OnBoard 22 (May 2016): 13–14.
Seldom can a genealogist complete a research project involving complex kinship or identity questions in a single segment. Genealogy standards reflect this reality. Whether researching for a client or ourselves, a report that meets standards for each research stage is critical to a project’s continuity and success. Standard 67 lists nine elements that all reports should contain.1 The parts work together to fulfill specific functions and allow the report to be used as a tool in the pursuit of genealogical proof. As with all genealogy standards, the usefulness of Standard 67 justifies its existence.
The beginning elements of a research report provide technical details that may affect real-world aspects of research in progress. They place the current report in its proper sequence in the context of the full research project. These details allow readers to quickly determine the relevance of a report to later research segments that may need to reference earlier findings.
• Identity of Researcher, Intended Recipient, Preparation Date, and Topic
This information is more than mere formality. It provides context that may be necessary for later evaluation. Reports are read and used by not only the original recipient but by others who may continue the research years later—a client, fellow researcher, professional genealogist, or family member. Identifying the report writer allows proper attribution of conclusions. The date places the report chronologically in the sequence of research segments undertaken in pursuit of an overall goal. If a long time elapses between related research segments, access or means of access to records may change. The report date alerts users that previously unavailable records may subsequently become accessible.
• Research Purpose, Scope, Format and Delivery
Efficient research requires an explicit overall research goal.2 Each research segment also has an immediate goal and a tentative research plan. For example, the overall research goal may be the identification of the father of Daniel Finlayson, born in Scotland and living in Suffolk County, New York, in 1900, but the immediate research goal may be a search of New York passenger lists or naturalization records to identify a date and place of immigration. The immediate goal is a logical part of the overall research goal. Standards 11 through 18 discuss research planning in more depth.3
Both the immediate and long term goals are defined explicitly at the beginning of the report. If a client specifies the scope, format, and delivery method, then these parameters are noted in the report, especially when it is necessary to explain any divergence from research compilation standards.
• Restrictions: Hours Authorized, Repositories, Sources, Expenses, and Others
When researching for ourselves, restrictions likely pertain to repository or source access. When researching for clients, however, hours and expenses are limited by their preference. These limits are noted in the report to explain any inability to meet the reasonably exhaustive standard of scope due to factors beyond our control. If restrictions are removed at a later time, it is important to know the extent to which the previously conducted and reported research was affected by any such restrictions.
Each report also contains background and contextual information relating to the research itself.
• Prior Research
Standard 67 requires a summation of previous research findings as each new research segment begins. This recapitulation grounds the current effort in a research continuum and acknowledges that the current work builds on the results of earlier efforts. In fact, this recapitulation may replicate a previous report’s summary.
This prior research summation includes relevant information about the target subject’s vital details and any other information relevant to the success of the overall and immediate research goals. The problem’s complexity may also require including background and biographical information about family members, associates, or neighbors.
• Contextual Factors
In addition to the examples noted in Standard 67—missing records, same-named individuals, and inaccurate prior conclusions—other factors may affect a research phase such as spelling variations, cultural naming patterns, county boundary changes, local historical events, or local laws in effect at the time. If known at the beginning of the research segment, these are noted. Other contextual and background factors discovered during the course of the research are included among the research findings and are considered when discussing the results of a research segment.
• Content, Format, and Explanations
After a research segment concludes, the results are related back to both the overall goal and the immediate goal. Determining if the goals were met and providing a reasoned explanation as to why are necessary components of the report.
Most often this part of Standard 67 is accomplished with a succinct “executive summary” or “summary of findings” section at the beginning of the report. The summary describes the relevant findings and any conclusions reached in the course of the research segment. Creating this summary forces us to mentally process all of the findings and measure the credibility of any conclusions against the Genealogical Proof Standard.4 Its place at the beginning of the report provides efficient access to the report’s key findings and conclusions.
When a research goal has not been fully met—as often happens—the report includes recommendations for future research. It is important that the next steps be considered when the research is still fresh in our minds. The next steps continue the research plan in pursuit of the goals and adapt it to the results of the research segment being reported. If researching for a client, these recommendations might encourage future contracts.
The above parts pertain specifically to the research itself. The background information defines it as a continuation of earlier work, while the summary provides a similar recapitulation for future reference. The recommendations for further research serve as the beginning of subsequent research segments.
Finally, the report’s main body contains the actual research findings. Reports include fully documented results of all research presented in a clear and logical sequence. Research is guided by the standards pertaining to planning, researching, and writing and include the following:
- Detailed description and evaluation of sources used. This is especially important if a source differs in form or content from what is usually expected in that time and place. For more information, see Standards 25 (Note-taking content) and 35 (Source analysis).5
- Transcriptions, abstracts, quotations, or summaries of the content of sources, as necessary for sufficient identification and comprehension of relevant information. For example, see Standards 23 (Reading handwriting), 24 (Understanding meanings), 26 (Distinction between content and comments), and 32 (Transcribing, abstracting, and quoting principles).6
- Identification and evaluation of information items relevant to the research segment’s goal. See Standards 36 (Information analysis) and 39 (Information preference).7
- Comparison of related information items. See Standards 46 (Evidence independence) and 47 (Evidence correlation).8
- Recognition and resolution, if possible, of contradictory information items provided by different sources. See Standards 48 (Resolving evidence inconsistencies) and 49 (Unresolved evidence inconsistencies).9
- Negative searches described in detail so that the same searches do not need to be repeated. This requirement includes citing any derivative sources, finding aids, or databases consulted, together with the search terms or procedures used. Sometimes negative findings result from indexing errors and may require using alternative search techniques to overcome the difficulty. Planning alternative future searches requires precise descriptions of the exact searches already conducted; these are especially useful if the next research segment is delayed.
- Safeguards to prevent loss or alteration of report parts. Using techniques such as headers, footers, numbering showing total pages, and footnotes rather than endnotes minimizes possible loss of information when a report is transmitted or copied and avoids reader confusion. For more details, see Standard 8 (Separation safeguards).10
In conclusion, only the simplest research goals tend to be achievable within a single research segment. Complex goals may require multiple sequential research segments to reach a defensible conclusion. Whether reporting simple or complex projects, Standard 67 of Genealogy Standards requires nine parts of a report. Each part allows research reports to be used as tools for continuing research until the Genealogical Proof Standard is met.
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry, 2014), 38–39 for Standard 67.
- Ibid., 11–12 for Standard 9, “Planned research,” and Standard 10, “Effective research questions.”
- Ibid., 12–15.
- Ibid., 2–3 for the five components of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
- Ibid., 17 and 21–22.
- Ibid., 17–18, 20.
- Ibid., 22–23, 24.
- Ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 27–28.
- Ibid., 9.
Michael Grant Hait Jr., CG
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.