During our school years each of us learns about the scientific method. We develop theories, test them, and then draw conclusions from the tests. Once conclusions have been validated they are reviewed by peers in the field in order to identify any flaws in the research or conclusions. This method has been at the heart of nearly all major scientific discoveries.
Quality genealogical research follows a process just as rigorous. Using sound principles is important to ensuring that correct conclusions are reached.
The first step to take is to identify what you want to know. My father always said, “A problem well defined is half solved.” This is as true in genealogical research as in any other field. Write down what it is that you want to know. The second step is to develop a strategy to determine how to learn the information you are seeking. Beginning the process of researching by identifying what is already known is essential. Think about if scientists trying to discover new ideas didn’t study what others had done in the field. How much more could they accomplish if they studied and understood what others have done? Genealogical research is no different. Take time to look and see if the information for which you have decided to search has already been found. If it has, evaluate the conclusions of the person who found it. Based on the evidence they present decide whether you want to accept their conclusions, or whether you need to research and validate their assertions.
If the conclusion does not seem sound, or if there is no conclusion relating to your goal then research begins. The research should follow a plan you have laid out in advance. It is easy to get sidetracked. Resist the urge. Stick to your plan adding new steps in the research plan or modifying when new evidence arises.
Take time to evaluate the results as each new source is searched. Make sure that each item that is searched is recorded. As you find information it is often wise to collaborate with someone to ensure that information is not missed. Recording unsuccessful searches is as important as recording successful searches. The evaluation of information you find is also extremely important. Collaboration at this step can save years of incorrect research.
It is also important to complete your search through sources, even if you think you have found the answer before everything is searched. Often you will find conflicting evidence. To form sound conclusions any contradictory evidence should be discovered, evaluated, and resolved before a conclusion is asserted.
Once a conclusion is reached then the information should be shared. There are many collaborative trees with sourcing capabilities that will allow you to share your findings. Sharing is essential for two reasons. First, it will allow others to view your work and see if there are any flaws in your research or conclusions. Second, it will allow others to build on the work you have already done rather than repeating it.
Once you have published it is time to begin again in the cycle of research by determining the next information you want to discover. Repeatedly following this pattern of research results in the most accurate conclusions, the most efficient research, and the most efficient use of time.