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"Uncertain" is a status indicator for database fields. Why and when should it be used?


What is an "Uncertain" status indicator?

Name, date, and location and other database fields can be marked as "Uncertain." See the edit page on any profile and look for the buttons beneath the data fields.

The other status indicator choices depend on the data field. The other Relationship Status choices for mothers and fathers are Confident and Confirmed with DNA.

There are no default settings for status indicators. When you create a new profile the status indicators are blank. There are some exceptions to this rule for GEDCOMpare-created profiles.

When should information be marked as Uncertain?

Uncertain indicators should be used by those who are involved in researching and analyzing sources for a profile when they are not confident about the accuracy of the information.

Never enter information on WikiTree, even uncertain information, without including your source. Why do you think it might be true?

An Uncertain date or location may be an estimate. See Help:Estimated Dates and Help:Uncertain Locations.

An Uncertain name or parent may be speculative but it should not be a guess. If you're only guessing at a name or parent you should not use the data fields. Instead, explain it in the narrative. You can link to highly speculative parents in the text. See Help:Uncertain_Parents.

Uncertain is approximately equal to unproven and can be used to mean undocumented.

  1. For modern profiles, WikiTree does not attempt to enforce a standard for evidence, such as the Genealogical Proof Standard. Ideally we want all information on WikiTree to be correct. It's in our Honor Code that we care about accuracy and are always aiming to improve our tree. This means we aspire to document everything with reliable proof (direct evidence) or a summary of proof (circumstantial evidence). Practically speaking, however, we do not enforce a proof standard.
  2. For profiles of people born before 1700, stricter rules on sources apply. See Help:Pre-1700 Profiles.

Uncertain is not for disproven information. If something could not be true it should not appear in the data fields. It should be explained in the text of the profile. This explanation will be extremely valuable for future research.

Uncertain is generally not for unlikely information. If one set of facts is more likely than another it should be replaced in the data fields. If facts are unlikely but there is no more-likely information, it can be removed. However there are exceptions to this and collaboration in these circumstances needs to be handled very delicately. See Disagreements about Certainty before removing uncertain information added by another active Wiki Genealogist.

What are examples of sources that provide uncertain information?

Sources are either original or derivative.

Here are examples of derivative sources:

  • A personal family tree.
  • A family tree found online, including GEDCOMs, LDS ancestral files, World Family Tree, RootsWeb, Geni, Ancestry Member Trees, etc.. If the tree cites reliable proofs, find the proofs and cite them.
  • Yates Publishing, US and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900, from
  • Find-A-Grave. Find-A-Grave profiles rarely cite reliable proofs. When they do, find the proofs and cite them.
  • Transcriptions of documents (wills, etc.) found online that are not published.
  • A discussion in a genealogy forum. If the discussion cites reliable proofs, find the proofs and cite them.
  • Books with family trees/family histories that do not cite reliable sources. These books are secondary sources and should be seen as a starting point. Further research is needed to confirm those relationships.
  • Edmund West Collection, from, per their own description, "should be used to find primary sources."

Here are examples of original sources where the information gathered from them is generally considered reliable:

  • Birth records.
  • Death records.
  • Marriage records.
  • Family bibles with birth/marriage/death dates.
  • Books that cite primary sources. This would Include books that transcribe birth/marriage/death records as well as authored family histories or trees that cite birth/marriage/death records.
  • Military records.
  • Will and estate records.
  • Court records.
  • Burial records.
  • History books that would have collected information from the subjects themselves.
  • Newspaper articles with the publication name, date, and location.
  • A proof summary of multiple sources of supporting evidence used to draw a reasonable conclusion.

Information from derivative sources, unless supported by other sources, should be considered uncertain and marked as such. However, since the community does not enforce a set standard of proof, this is a determination made by the editors of the profile — the Wiki Genealogists who are engaged in finding and evaluating sources of information. See Disagreements about Certainty before considering marking information added by someone else as Uncertain.

For more information on evaluating genealogy sources, see the Pre-1700 Self-Certification. Also please note that profiles of people born before 1700 must use sources that the community has determined to be reliable.

Why is uncertain information allowed on WikiTree?

Wiki Genealogists often have reservations about entering uncertain information or allowing uncertain information entered by others to remain on WikiTree, even when it's clearly marked as Uncertain and explained in the text.

There are definitely downsides to having uncertain information on our shared tree. In particular, we don't want to mislead people into thinking that speculative information is proven. However, there are upsides to including unproven information on WikiTree. Here are some of them.

Encourage collaboration

WikiTree is designed for genealogy collaboration. It's what we're all about.

We want information on WikiTree to be viewed as a work-in-progress. Our members are constantly improving on the tree. Adding unproven genealogy and trying to prove or disprove it is part of the improvement process.

To encourage collaboration, we want members to say what they think they know and why they think they know it. Then we can discuss the validity of the sources.

Many genealogists feel comfortable treating information on their desktop software or in their private notes as a work-in-progress but recoil at the idea of putting uncertain information online. We are afraid that others will assume it is certain.

We definitely do not want people to see unproven information on WikiTree and think it is proven. This is why we created the Uncertain database indicators and why we explain the evidence for and against a conclusion in the narrative. This enables us to collaborate on confirming or disproving uncertain information without misleading anyone.

Genealogy collaboration requires different standards than genealogy publishing.

Postulate hypotheses

Genealogists may be using uncertain information as working hypotheses to be researched, debated, and/or tested.

It's true that in many cases there is no ongoing research. Sometimes all the available sources have been recorded and fully examined by good genealogists and no reliable conclusions can be made. However, additional evidence may be discovered, even for very early ancestors.

Given the rapid advances in genetic genealogy there is additional evidence in all of our cells. One of the great hidden benefits of WikiTree collaboration is that we are giving genetic genealogists testable hypotheses.

For example, let's say that there is a possibility that Joe Smith's father was John Smith. If there are direct-line male descendants of Joe and direct-line male descendants of John or his direct-line male ancestors, the connection between Joe and John can be reliably confirmed or disproven using Y-chromosome DNA testing. WikiTree's DNA test connections are designed to facilitate the discovery of this sort of exciting opportunity, but it only works if the people are connected in the database, at least provisionally.

Note that if highly speculative, unlikely information is added as a working hypothesis it should be removed after it is no longer being actively investigated or tested. See Disagreements about Certainty for more on this.

Matching (internal search)

Uncertain information in the database fields, as opposed to narratives, can be helpful for matching.

For example, let's say you are working on a woman named Mary whose last name may have been Smith. She might have been born around 1700 and her father might have been John Smith.

If she is Mary Unknown, with no dates, and no parents, there is nothing for our systems to match against. Another member may be working on the same person and you won't find her.

If, however, you estimate a birth date, use Smith as the last name and mark it as Uncertain, and enter John Smith as her father and enter him as Uncertain, you're much more likely to find possible matches.

Cousin bait (external search)

"Cousin bait" is an essential part of how WikiTree works for its members. We want our profiles to be found by distant cousins who are searching Google so that they can share information and collaborate with us.

The keywords that your distant cousin enters into Google may be uncertain. They won't be searching for Mary Unknown. They may be searching for something like "Mary Smith" + "John Smith" + 1700.

Making sure that this distant cousin can find your research may be a valuable service to everyone involved. If they find the profile you created they will see that the data is uncertain and can view your full explanation. If they use the same keywords to find the data on one of the many non-collaborative online trees where it isn't marked as uncertain they won't benefit from your research and they may end up propagating mistakes.

To be clear, we wouldn't ever want to enter incorrect or disproven information in our database fields just to attract distant cousins who may be searching for it. This would destroy the integrity of our database. Disproven information can and should be explained in the narrative (this still has cousin bait benefits, among other benefits) but the database fields need to be used according to set standards. Only uncertain information should be marked as Uncertain. See Disagreements about Certainty when this decision needs to be made collaboratively.

The value of cousin bait shouldn't be underestimated. You never know when one of these distant cousins may help us prove or disprove uncertain information. They may be in the possession of a unique piece of evidence, or their very DNA may be the evidence we seek.

Clarify it's uncertain, not just unknown

When Uncertain database indicators are used, the data is highlighted as uncertain. We clearly show on profiles, trees, descendant lists, Relationship Finder connections, etc., that the information is uncertain. We then link to the narrative for the full explanation.

When database fields are empty, we highlight that the data needs to be entered. There are exceptions to this. You can indicate that a person has no middle name, that a date is empty for privacy reasons, or that a person had no children or no spouse. But you cannot indicate that a person had no parents.

Missing parents may have been exhaustively searched-for and cannot currently be proven. This may be fully explained in the narrative. However, on various tree views and other contexts members will see an implied or explicit invitation to add the missing parents. Some will come to the profile expecting to add the parents. Some will skip the profile because they assume there is nothing to see. Many will go to other websites where they can see the parents.

As with the "cousin bait" point, you should certainly never enter incorrect or disproven information in a database field because of an ulterior motive to attract or deter others who are expecting to see or enter it. That would corrupt the integrity of our database. However, if data is uncertain and there is no more-certain data, entering it as Uncertain clarifies the situation for everyone and its usage is in line with WikiTree database standards. Its usage is likely to give your full explanation in the narrative a better chance of being seen and understood as intended.

To summarize: Although it's counter-intuitive, showing uncertain information can help prevent people from being misled that the information is certain if other websites and sources show the parents and don't clearly explain that they're uncertain.

See Disagreements about Certainty.

This page was last modified 22:06, 22 December 2022. This page has been accessed 39,087 times.