Research Tips

The Dangers of Being Careless on Citing Resources in Your Genealogy Research

The Dangers of Being Careless on Citing Resources in Your Genealogy Research



One of the most important parts of genealogy is citing your sources. Doing good genealogy research means making it something others can trust and follow. Sources allow other researchers to do this and use your research with confidence. Good sources also allow you the confidence of knowing your research is as correct as it can be with your current information. Using source citing shows good genealogical scholarship, and shows you to be a serious researcher and not just a casual hobbyist. Citing sources is also required if you are submitting any of your work to genealogical journals.

As you can see, you must cite your sources to be looked upon as a good genealogist. However, you also have to be careful in citing your sources. Make sure they are accurate and attached to the correct facts. Here are some of the dangers of being careless in your source citing in your genealogical research.

1. You May Get the Wrong Source Attached to the Wrong Fact

Be careful when citing your sources, especially on genealogy family tree software programs. It can be easy to accidentally put a source on the wrong fact. This not only makes your work look sloppy and unprofessional to other researchers, it can be confusing for you when you look at your research later. If you look up a source to confirm a fact as you go further back on that family line, you won’t be able to connect the two, resulting in you being unaware of where you actually got the fact you cited. Anyone using your work as a source for their own research will come across the same problem, and that particular fact, or even all the work you did on that line, will become useless to them. It can also lead to embarrassment if your research gets published in a genealogical journal and someone notices the citation and the fact don’t match each other.

2. You May Not Be Able to Understand Your Citation Later

There is a proper way to cite genealogical sources. You usually cite the entire source, including the name of the publication, the author, the repository, and the date you accessed it, the first time you use it. Subsequent times the source is used, it can be abbreviated. But, if you don’t cite it in full and accurately the first time, you may not understand it, or your abbreviations, later. Don’t think you won’t ever need to check a source again. The more work you do on a family line, the more likely you are to need to use your sources to re-confirm information. If you have recorded your sources in a way you can’t understand them later, they will be useless to you. It is well worth it to invest in a book on how to properly cite genealogical sources for this very purpose. “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace,” by Elizabeth Shown Mills, is considered the definitive publication on the subject.

3. You Can Get People and Family Lines Confused With Each Other

Many families reuse names again and again over the generations. There are also surnames that are quite common, and if you have different family lines in the same area with the same surname, it can get confusing keeping people straight. Making sure your source citations are accurate can keep people straight for you. If you don’t cite sources, or cite them incorrectly or illegibly, you can easily get people confused. You might put someone in the wrong generation, or mix up one line of your family with another that uses similar names and is in a similar location. Good, careful source citation minimizes these risks and ensures you have an accurate family tree where everyone is where they are supposed to be.

It may seem like a hassle to write or type your sources for every genealogical fact you include on your family tree, but it is worth it. It is also worth it to take the time to do it correctly. Don’t be careless with your genealogical source citation, and you can be relatively sure you’ve got an accurate family tree that will stand up to the scrutiny of even the most diligent genealogy scholars.


Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

4 Comments

  • I wish ancestry and other similar sites would include a color code on name, various dates and locations…. green would be confirmed, yellow would be likely but not necessarily confirmed and red would essentially mean… found this piece of information have my doubts on accuracy but I don’t want to lose the info in case I find out that it is correct. I find things I doubt but don’t want to lose it. I have used “?” to indicated that I am not comfortable and need to confirm the information.

  • I never have considered myself a ‘researcher’, or even a ‘genealogist’…….I love doing my ancestry, I love comparing my tree to others’ trees within my circle of relatives…….It feeds upon our findings and we have shared them usually thru our trees……..I now find myself with a private tree, but I’m happy, as ‘ancestry’ still allows me to ‘add’ to my tree when I find a story or information that is ‘pertinent’ to my subj…..I am NOT a perfectionist as I witness in some of you………and some of the fb groups are the worst, but I know that I’m in good family company so we tolerate those very same cousins. Oh, by the way, I have a beautiful tree, and am very proud of it. and I could not have done it without the help of my cousins. DNA cousins

  • It is unbelievable the number of people on Ancestry that just add whatever they see attached to someone’s tree. They don’t or won’t take the time to verify anything and will have the same spouse and kids listed multiple times.

    • True Confessions:
      I am (was) guilty of this back a ways. I started in ’85 with PAF.
      Since then I realized the err of those ways, and with much time & difficulty but with fastidiousness am slowly resurrecting these past sins.

      But I do see it many times on ancestry.com.
      Thank you for the strong suggestion to all.