Writing in The Jersey Journal, Daniel Klein describes his experiences with Ancestry.com’s member-contributed family trees. He describes the problem caused by novice genealogists using information from a reasonably reputable source (The US Census) and applying it to the wrong person. Now other people have accepted this erroneous information as gospel and it perpetuates over and over. You can read Daniel Klein’s article at http://blog.nj.com/tracing_your_roots/2014/04/post_6.html.
I will quickly add that Klein writes only about his experiences with Ancestry.com but those of us who have been looking at online genealogy sites for years know that the problem is more widespread. It is not a problem solely on Ancestry.com, but also on all genealogy web sites that accept and republish user-contributed family trees without question or verification. Indeed, no organization can verify the information contributed by users. That would be a Herculean task.
I do have to agree with the one positive statement in Klein’s article: “…use them as a guide and not gospel. Take all information you find with a grain of salt, examine it closely, ask questions, check sources and then do all those things over again until it hits all of the Genealogical Proof Standard’s points.“
We tend to treat this as a modern problem of the Internet. However, I will invite anyone to go to a genealogy library and look at the books published before the invention of the World Wide Web, especially the self-published books. Many of them contain huge errors and offer no source citations where the information was found. This is not a new problem.
I still use Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, FamilySearch.org, WeRelate.org, WikiTree.com, and any other genealogy web site that I think might be able to help. I expect to keep using them for many more years. However, unless there is an image of the original document included, I treat all genealogy information online and in books as CLUES ABOUT WHAT MIGHT BE FACTUAL.
I have to agree with the first part of Daniel Klein’s title: Ancestry is an Excellent Genealogy Resource…
I still love online sites as they have saved me a lot of time by giving me clues. However, I always attempt to verify or disprove the claim by independent research.