The Importance of Process Tracking

Solutions manuals to math text books have the answers and sometimes the correct work to get that answer.  That’s all fine and good if one has a reasonable idea of what one is doing.

It is not so good when one is struggling with process and does not know what to do when, does not know why certain processes are preferred over others, and does not know what to do when things don’t work the way they are supposed to. Neatly written up examples with the correct answer do not explain insight nor do they show how the solver of the problem struggled with wrong process and incorrect assumptions.

That’s when teachers, in one form or another, are helpful. That’s also where it is helpful for the student to see not just the complete, neat, and written-up answer, but also the process, the mistakes, and the reasons behind what was done. They need to see the messy process that lead to the answer–assuming that there is an answer.

The same is true in genealogical research.

I can read all the neatly written up case studies that I want. I can see conclusions made clearly, logically, and concisely. But sometimes that still does not tell me:

  • how did you find that?
  • how did you know to look for that?
  • why did you try that first?
  • what did you try that did not work?

Some case studies explain those things. Many do not. Those details are frequently edited out in the interest of space and “staying on point.”

That’s a mistake for two reasons.

The first is that the reader benefits from seeing process written in a clear and understanding way. The second is that readers who are analyzing the argument made by the writer can better judge the writer’s research process and methodology if they at least know how the writer looked for things. This is especially true when databases and indexes are queried for individuals. Did those searches cover all reasonable variants? Were all reasonable locations checked for certain records and what were the records that were searched? It is great to say one has found things and what those things contain and to analyze that information, but

if the reader knows nothing about the search process, then the reader cannot determine the perceived efficacy and exhaustiveness of that process.

Saying “Peter Bieger could not be located in the 1850 census” does not tell me anything. How was that search conducted? Were database queries used and, if so, what search terms were used? After all, I don’t know if the author searched for Peter Bieger as that name exactly or if their search included constructs that would locate spellings such as Peter Pickert unless they tell me. Was a manual search of places where Peter Bieger is reasonably believed to have lived conducted in addition to database queries? Statements (particularly ones where something cannot be found) cannot be evaluated without knowing something about the research process.

Researchers who have no intention of publishing need to track their own process as well for two main reasons:

  • it allows you later to re-evaluate your process and determine if that process was flawed
  • it allows you to conduct the search over to see if there were results that you overlooked

Citations are important, but they get at what we’ve found and who created it. Process gets at how we got to that information we needed to cite. And that process matters as well.


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