There has been an extended discussion in the DearMYRTLE's Genealogy Community on Google+ about this issue. I posted on 14 July 2013 the following in the community:
True confession: I cite "indexes" found in books, periodicals, web pages, and online databases when that is where I obtain my information about names, events, dates, places, relationships, etc.
A common definition of "index" is:
"Alphabetically arranged list of items (such as names or terms) given at the end of a printed text with page numbers on which the item can be found."
That describes the typical book "index" very well - where you look in the back of a book to see the page(s) where a name or term is used.
In genealogy research, we often use the term "index" to mean a list of items within a document, publication or database, and as something that we can search for specific terms. Examples might include a list of births, marriages or deaths found in a book or on a microfilm, or in a searchable set of entries in an online database,
Perhaps the term "index" is not used correctly when applied to databases like the "California Death Index," the "Social Security Death Index," or the Find A Grave website. Information in those "indexes" was transcribed or abstracted from some original record created by a public or private entity. These "indexes" often don't exist in a published A to Z form - they are entries in a linked database that enables users to search them for specific search terms.
In those typical online genealogical databases, the "indexed information" is what I find - whatever an "indexer" put into a relational database field. I did not find the original record that the "indexed" information was obtained from. The "indexed" information may not include everything that is included in the original record.
We are told to cite what you find, rather than citing the "source of the source," so I'm citing the "index" entry. If an image of a document is available, then I cite the image, which is usually a more authoritative source.
Are the "index" entries accurate? My experience is that vital records "indexes" are very accurate (but not 100%), and that some user-contributed "indexes" are not always accurate. But they do provide information that can be found in a more original form with further effort.
My practice, for my ancestral families, is to dig deeper when I find the "indexed" information and try to find, and obtain a copy of, the original source, or to obtain a vital records certificate from an agency. When I find a better, seemingly more authoritative, source, I add that source citation to the Event in my database, and keep the "index" item also. I'd like to think that this practice fits Jones' description of what a researcher should do in pursuit of genealogical proof.
However, for my one-name studies, I usually do not dig deeper because of the time and expense that may be involved. These are not my "people" but they may be distant cousins that other researchers may be searching for. My one-name studies are in my family tree database as a finding aid for other researchers who might find a connection to my Seaver, Richman, Dill, Carringer, Auble and Vaux families. Therefore, I have thousands of source citations to online genealogy "index" collections and published vital record books in the interest of providing finding aids for myself and other researchers.
During the MGP Hangouts on Air and in comments on the Google+ community, several persons noted that what Thomas W. Jones wrote in his book applied to "genealogical proof" arguments that support "conclusions," and not necessarily to "working files" for a researcher that lead to a hypothesis and eventual conclusion for a name, event or relationship. Mr. Jones' book is geared to the prospective or current professional researcher who does client research, writes peer-reviewed periodical articles and books, etc.
We each do things differently, and we don't have to do things exactly like other researchers do. It often depends upon the level of education and experience of the researcher. For me, the most important thing is to "cite the source you used so that you can evaluate the accuracy of the source and can find that source again." The next most important thing is to "use the source you find to find original source information if at all possible."
Let me be clear: I am an advocate of the Genealogical Proof Standard, and try to apply it when I have a research challenge and conflicting evidence, but I don't use it for every person and Event. I appreciate the research and documentation standards that have been developed over the last 20 years to promote source citations, proof arguments, etc., including the Evidence Explained and Mastering Genealogical Proof books. I am a researcher on two tracks - my own family history and genealogy, and the one-name studies for certain surnames. I use indexes and online databases as sources in an effort to get the most return on my time and money investment. I am very much a "conclusion-based" researcher rather than an "evidenced-based" researcher. I use family tree software because the program features organize the collected information in a form that minimizes errors, duplication and paper, and provide a way to create standard genealogy reports and charts.
What do my readers think? Am I a bad researcher because I cite "indexes?"
The URL for this post is: http://www.geneamusings.com/2013/07/am-i-bad-researcher-because-i-cite.html
Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver