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DNA Standards and Certification – A Response to an NGS Quarterly Editorial

EDIT 2/8/2014 - I am happy to report that the group originally organized by CeCe Moore is still planning to work on standards, guidelines, and certification for Genetic Genealogists, and thus I will continue to work with that group. Thank you to everyone that expressed support, and I will try to contact you soon.

Original Post:

Below, I’m taking the unenviable position of disagreeing, at least in part, with an editorial by Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones in National Genealogical Society Quarterly entitled “DNA Standards.” (1)  I’m writing to share my viewpoint and my thoughts about moving forward, and to provide a venue for continued discussion on the subject.

This is also the first post in a series of posts about “DNA and the Genealogical Proof Standard,” culminating with a presentation with the same title at SCGS Jamboree 2014 (on Friday June 7, 2014 at 2:30 PM).

There have been several very good discussions of DNA and GPS (see a future blog post for a bibliography), including a recent article (2) by Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, and perhaps the very first publication, an article by Helen F. M. Leary entitled “Evidence Revisited — DNA, POE, and GPS.” (3) However, I think there’s a continued need for discussion, as the NGS Quarterly editorial demonstrates.

The NGS Editorial – DNA Standards

In the editorial, Byrne and Jones note that genealogists missed “the opportunity and responsibility to set standards—not for laboratory procedures, but for acceptable linkages to individual documentation, ethics, and interpretations.”  Accordingly, they conclude:

“With no established standards, editors face a conundrum when considering articles from DNA-test participants.  Do they publish results that might affect relatives who have not released rights? When a DNA profile becomes as easily recognizable as a cursive signature, who has what rights?”

Additionally, they assert, the “real DNA-test quagmire is ethical,” and “[g]enealogists have no voice in the discussion of ethical uses of DNA test results.”

My Thoughts

The editorial is, unfortunately, necessary.  The authors are correct that genealogists have failed to step up to establish standards for the analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of DNA ancestry test results. In genealogists’ defense DNA is a moving target, unlike almost all other types of records. New and expanded tests are regularly offered, and it is a challenge to stay up-to-date on what is offered and how it can be used for research. It’s challenging, but certainly not impossible.

We need these standards, and the sooner the better. More on that below.

DNA Exceptionalism

My major concern with the editorial is that it operates on an assumption of “DNA exceptionalism,” the belief that genetic information is special and should be treated differently from other types of information.  In other words, that DNA ancestry test results are inherently different from traditional genealogical records, and thus must be treated differently.

Indeed, if DNA ancestry test results are not inherently different from traditional genealogical records, then the answer to the question of whether to “publish results that might affect relatives who have not released rights” would the same for DNA as it is for census records, land records, tax records, and other genealogical records

If DNA ancestry test results are somehow different, then the editors are correct in their argument that we need standards for test results that we don’t necessarily need for other types of records.

My concern, however, is that the editors fail to set forth an argument as to why DNA test results should be treated differently from other genealogical records. This is not a foregone conclusion.  Just as a DNA test can reveal a non-parental event (i.e., some break between a supposed parent and child), so can census records, wills, and numerous other types of records. Indeed, genealogists have been revealing hidden family secrets since long before DNA testing was available.  Although DNA test results may add an extra degree of authority or finality to the reveal, it is not alone in being able to uncover truths.  The biggest secret in my own family was revealed not through DNA, but through traditional genealogical research.

Genealogists Do Have a Voice

I’m happy to note that, in fact, genealogists have indeed had a voice in the discussion of ethical issues surrounding DNA ancestry testing.  For example, I have blogged in response to the several papers published on the topic by the American Society of Human Genetics (“ASHG”) (see here and here), and just last fall I and several other genealogists were invited to attend an DNA ancestry testing roundtable meeting organized by the ASHG.

We have a voice, but it is not nearly loud enough.

The Way Forward – A Standards and Certification Organization

Although I do not share the editor’s concerns to the same degree, I do agree with their overall conclusion that genealogists need to “choose the standards and applications” for DNA ancestry testing, or others will.

Genealogists have discussed the possibility of a genetic genealogy certification process for DNA testing for some time, but unfortunately none of these discussions have gone anywhere.  Having a standards and certification body will allow genealogists to promulgate standards, best practices, and applications for DNA ancestry testing, in addition to providing certification to those who wish to pursue it.

Accordingly, I am going to take a more prominent role in establishing and coordinating a formal group whose mission is to establish and promulgate Standards for DNA Ancestry Testing, and for certifying individuals as a Certified Genetic Genealogist.  While I do not now or will I ever believe that certification is a necessary step for any genealogist, it can be a valuable tool for sharing knowledge and aiding the community.

If you’re interested in being an active part of this group, please contact me at blaine_5@hotmail.com or via social media.  Over the next 2-3 months, we will discuss and draft an initial set of standards which we will share with the genealogical community for comment.  Once we finalize a set of standards, we will design and implement a certification process that utilizes those standards, with the goal to have a completed certification process in place later this year.

I hope to hear from you!

References

1.  Melinde Lutz Byrne and Thomas W. Jones, “DNA Standards,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 101 (December 2013): 243.

2.  Judy Russell, “DNA and the Reasonably Exhaustive Search,” OnBoard: Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists 20 (January 2014):1-2, 7.

3.  Helen F. M. Leary, “Evidence Revisited —DNA, POE, and GPS,” OnBoard: Newsletter of the Board for Certification of Genealogists 4 (January 1998): 1–2.

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

2 Comments

  1. Bravo! The same feelings many of us have about the specialty of forensic genealogy, which will surely have untold numbers of overlaps with genetic genealogy.

  2. If I understand your argument correctly, you feel that DNA data is not different than other information a genealogist might uncover in their research. This seems perfectly reasonable to me. I’m trained as a journalist, not as a geneticist. In our world the dissemination of information is strongly protected by the First Amendment. In cases of ethical conflict, the decision should error on the side of wide release of information. “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

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