Peer review

Genealogists can learn from Fantasy Football. The focus with which some people research yards per game or number of completed passes is the same that every genealogist should put into learning about the “team” of authors upon whom they are basing their own work. Is your team reliable in the “red zone”?

Fortunately, today we have pretty nearly full access to thousands of book reviews online. The category for “Journals and Periodicals” on AmericanAncestors lists thirty serial works, including The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, The American Genealogist, The Maine Genealogist, Connecticut Nutmegger, Mayflower Descendant, and Rhode Island Roots, all of which can be searched in one swoop. In addition, the National Genealogical Society also provides access for their members to National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Together these works contain reviews of genealogies published since 1845!

While some book “reviews” are just notices that something has been published, there can be a lot of useful meat when you find a review that critically examines the work. Take, for example, my first book review, which appeared in The American Genealogist and was written by editor David L. Greene.[1] David said some nice things like “Whenever Ms. Williams bases a discussion upon her own research into primary sources, the result is excellent…”

Every issue of every genealogical periodical contains notes correcting, expanding, and/or disputing someone else’s previously published information…

However, he also included a whole batch of things that I either should not have accepted or missed: “In at least once instance Stone-Gregg repeats an assertion from a work that should not have included it in the first place”; “Stone-Gregg does not identify…”; “Solomon Keys is incorrectly considered the immigrant…”; “Nothing is said about the parentage of Mary Stevenson [which had been published]” – ouch! but this is what makes a review both a valuable addendum to the book and a good education for a young author.

In any case, a review is not the end of the story. Every issue of every genealogical periodical contains notes correcting, expanding, and/or disputing someone else’s previously published information (read them even if they are in teeny-tiny print or footnotes). As time goes on and more research is undertaken, with improved access to expanded sources and better understanding of methodology, new accounts are published. Nearly every new article improves on something that preceded it, often with important notes about the original sources.

Finding reviews of old books is still tricky, as they are usually not indexed under the book title, but if you search for the author or the name of the family within a year or two of publication you will probably find what you want. As an experiment, try to track down reviews of the books you are using as sources for your own genealogy.

As for scoring, I would probably give my first review a 5 out of 10.


[1] Alicia Crane Williams, ed., Stone-Gregg Genealogy, The Ancestors and Descendants of Galen Luther Stone and his wife Carrie Morton Gregg, prepared for Barbara Stone Chase (Baltimore, 1987), reviewed by David L. Greene, ed., The American Genealogist 63 [1988]: 189–90.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

8 thoughts on “Peer review

  1. This is immediately helpful. I am struggling with an Alling family member who married a Stanley and I think the Alling book is wrong. I am going to search for reviews right now! Thank you!

  2. Alicia: While a book review, and certainly an acute one provided by a same-field professional as in the example you have given, can fall under “Peer Review”, it really belongs, along with the other examples you’ve given in this entry, under the category heading LITERATURE SEARCH. And the most difficult part of an LS in this field is finding the “Additions and Corrections” even within well indexed journals such as the Register (& now the AA magazine itself). Rarely does an A&C show up as a full fledged article such as Gale Ion Harris’ “Revisiting Jonathan”, TAG 89(July 2017):3–have to put a note in the original TAG 2012 article! And corrections and updates in footnotes, well, those become lost almost immediately. You can never really complete a LITERATURE SEARCH as Mr. Harris makes clear.

    But an LS is NOT a PEER REVIEW, as I understand the process. The PR means “looking searchingly at something with discernment” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary 1973) in order to evaluate it’s quality and argument in order to make those elements better. Which means you have to be open to and accepting of CRITICISM, which is really hard for most of us. If you had asked Mr. Greene to review your Stone-Gregg work BEFORE publication, that would have been PEER REVIEW.

    The PR that one of my article attempts got 10 years ago–Yeah, Rev. Mr. B could have had a 1st marriage but the accepted conclusion of just 1 marriage is on more solid footing given the lack of information over all, so no we won’t accept for publishing–is precisely the kind of PR outcome a writer needs to welcome even if it is a disappointment.

    You know, when you posed the question here re Daniel Fisher’s father-in-law’s will, you were really asking for PEER REVIEW on a crucial decision/writing element within that sketch. Our responses likely confirmed the Occam’s Razor line you had already reached (“Daniel Fisher”, EFNE database).

    So, if you are writing genealogy, ask another creditable genealogist to read line by line, footnote by footnote, what you have written with a very, very sharp red or blue pencil in hand.

    1. Bob, technically you are right, but in this instance we are looking at a very specific question — how do you find out whether a genealogy that has already been published is good or bad? Book reviews are peer reviews, even though they just brush the surface. They can give one a flavor of whether or not the reviewer was positive about the book or not. That might set off red flags to encourage the researcher to be extra vigilant when using information from the books.

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