When researching ancestors I often look to see if anyone else has already done some work on that line, and therefore provided some useful clues I can follow up. But I also admit to not accepting what I see on someone else’s tree without checking it out for myself. For me, to just copy someone else’s research would take all the fun out of it, but it would also require assuming their research was accurate. Unfortunately there are far too many online trees that are littered with errors.
I can understand mistakes being made when there are several people of the same names at the same time in the same places – it’s often be extremely difficult, or even impossible, to know who are the right ones. I follow the academic research principle of triangulation – if you approach something in at least two different ways, or can cite two or more pieces of data which support your conclusion, you improve your chances of being right. In genealogy, the further you go back in time the harder this is, but having at least two pieces of evidence that point to the same “suspect” is a good principle to follow, otherwise you’ve simply made an assumption without any proof.
However, I’ve also come across trees with my ancestors on them which contain absolute howlers. There’s one with the same couple having over 20 children during a 40 year period, some of whom were born less than 9 months apart. I think not. And there’s another which has a coal miner born in the mid 1700s living to 106. I’ve looked, just in case there’s something in it, but can’t find any evidence to support such a claim. I’d love to know where on earth the person who wrote that into their tree got the idea from.
I don’t contact people to point out their errors as I have a feeling most wouldn’t take kindly to such intervention and, no matter how nicely I worded it, would see it as criticism. In any case I doubt very much that my own tree is 100% error free, although it’s an awful lot less error free than it was in the early days of my research. Since then I’ve not just learnt a lot about my ancestors – I’ve learnt how to research.
What does irritate me, though, is that some people copy other people’s trees without suspecting they could be copying errors, so there can be ten or more trees on a site, all with the same mistake. To a newcomer, seeing the same “fact” on lots of trees no doubt makes them think it must be correct, so they promptly copy it. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers going horribly wrong.
With more and more records becoming available online, it’s become so much easier to do family research at home on a computer, and it will only get easier and easier. But data is only useful if you can use it wisely, and in genealogy that means knowing the difference between a certainty, a strong possibility, a working hypothesis and a mistaken assumption.