An Approach to Genetic Genealogy (Part 1)
Genetic Genealogy is a relatively new hobby & citizen science. There are few rules governing how to run your projects and interact with people with whom you share a DNA test match. Like all new endeavours, everyone is learning, best practices are developing and being adopted. Some excellent guidance can be found on the many genetic genealogist blogs who discuss better ways of working and how to interpret results. There is also an online community that is busy educating and explaining to the wider group of testers, who may not have a science background or get easily put off by terminology.
The Seven C’s
The following list of Seven C’s is a check list that I have developed over the last two years. It is based on my own personal experiences of untangling my own DNA and working with others. The length of discussion around the first C, “Collaboration”, reflects the many issues about getting started with investigations once results are known. The other C’s to follow are Confirmation, Conversation, Confidentiality, Context, Consideration & Conclusion.
Taking a DNA test and getting the initial result is the easiest part. By the far the most difficult is finding a match that is prepared to collaborate. Genetic genealogy relies on the goodwill of collaboration and the sharing of DNA results. If you are new to genetic genealogy, getting started is generally much harder than you might think.
You would be mistaken in thinking that everyone who tests is keen to learn more about their matches, even where the next steps can be done for free. Here are a few examples:
- They tested for fun (perhaps receiving a birthday or Christmas gift), found their ethnicity estimates interesting, but have no interest in genealogy (building a family tree and exploring family connections).
- They find DNA matching and the general science behind it daunting or incomprehensible, even where there are Help pages and explanations available on test websites and the International Society of Genetic Genealogy website. As mentioned in an earlier post, for many, DNA can simply spell “scary”.
- People have concerns about the use of their data (privacy issues or use by law enforcement). There are many myths surrounding DNA testing for genealogical purposes and these are well discussed on the many online blogs such as those by Blaine T Bettinger & The DNA Geek.
- They tested for a specific purpose (for example to prove whether they might not be the natural born child of their parents) and have no further interest in family history.
- They may have been adopted and researching their adopted family and not their biological family, i.e. nurture over nature.
- There may be difficult personal and private circumstances, for example involving other living people which may include illegitimacy, unknown adoption, incest or rape.
- The account may be dormant or belong to a recently deceased person.
The most enthusiastic collaborators tend be like-minded individuals interested in understanding not just that they match each other, but the how and why. However, I also find it can be equally difficult getting useful data from known and close family, so genetic distance is not a barrier in itself.
Trying to contact DNA matches is frustrating, but this something that genetic genealogist just have to accept. Attempts to collaborate are made primarily through testing companies own messaging systems. These generally provide a poor overview because you have no idea whether the person would welcome an approach or if the account is active. Messages may go to email accounts no longer used, so proof of delivery is an issue. Members may only log-on a few times a year. It could be easily resolved if member profiles had a radio button that indicated that they would welcome approaches concerns their DNA matches. It would save a lot of time.
It is a sad fact of research life that over 99% of messages sent to members of Ancestry, MyHeritage & Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) do not respond. This is based on my own experiences over the last decade and thousands of approaches not just concerning DNA matches but family trees in general. It is not unusual to receive replies 2 or 3 years later with “Sorry, but I have only just seen your message”. You can be lucky to find testers who match the profile you have of them on Facebook, but messaging someone who isn’t already a Friend also faces a poor response rate. Not every Facebook user is aware of or checks those automatic “filtered messages”. The response rate on Facebook is about the same as for the other messaging systems.
The other significant barrier to collaboration is that the world’s largest genealogical DNA database is Ancestry. Ancestry is the only main testing company that does not provide a chromosome browser which shows where you match another person. If anyone has tested with or copied their data for free across to MyHeritage or FTDNA, as examples, at least their chromosome browsers provide the basic details of your matches, enabling you to get an idea of how they might connect genetically to you or the group you are studying. In general, Ancestry’s database is largely inaccessible to its own members because of the lack of a simple chromosome browser except where a collaborator shares their result outside of Ancestry. Unfortunately, this single issue has probably set back the advancement of genetic genealogical understanding by years.
It is recommended that data is shared as widely as possible. Most of the testing companies allow free uploads of DNA files from other companies. Again, Ancestry stands out as the one company that does not accept uploads from others. It also helps if there are multi-generational trees on both sides, ideally between 6 & 8 generations.
Everyone who tests and wishes to collaborate is recommended to copy their file to GEDmatch, a platform that allows sharing of data from all testing companies for free and provides useful tools to help genetic genealogy.
The other six of my “Seven C’s” will be discussed in the next post.
Mark Grace, Resident Genealogist, Ballynoe House