Ancestry.com DNA analysis draws praise and criticism

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A map showing different types of groups where people may come from.

Ancestry.com has released an update of their DNA analysis service and a new training video to further connect individuals to their ancestors. The release and subsequent update of Ancestry.com includes services for both amateurs and experts.

AncestryDNA has been around since 2012. They announced a new tool in April stating it would connect individuals to members of their families they may not have known about.

“With a simple saliva sample we can tell you your ethnicity across 26 regions worldwide. We will also give you cousin matches from the database of more than 850,000 people who have also taken this AncestryDNA test,” said Ancestry spokesperson Matthew Deighton.

The DNA test organizes each customer into a “DNA Circle” of other participants who are all genetically related to a common ancestor. The DNA test is combined with Ancestry’s massive database of family history information to show you the people who are possible common ancestors between a person and that person’s close genetic matches.

“It is effectively a shortcut through time — you take the test today, and we tell you who your ancestors were, for example, in the 1700s. You don’t need to research records or build a family tree — AncestryDNA now transports you to the past,” said senior vice president and general manager of AncestryDNA Ken Chahine.

It all sounds too good to be true, and it very well might be.

“AncestryDNA, like all other genetic genealogy testing options, has its pros and cons,” said Paul Woodbury, an independent genetic genealogist and BYU graduate. “New Ancestor Discoveries certainly has the potential to be a major ‘pro’ for Ancestry.com, but just as any genealogical evidence or scientific evidence, the information that this tool provides should be investigated and confirmed using additional research.”

Woodbury cited a few issues that could arise with AncestryDNA, such as its reliance on the family history work of others. Since the information on many family trees is incompletely researched, users of AncestryDNA should be cautious to not accept the information too readily.

Another concern is the lack of information and outside evaluation on the specific methods used by AncestryDNA to provide results for its customers. The genetic genealogy community has continually asked Ancestry for more access to underlying data, and its response has been a resounding and firm “no.” “Without access to this information we cannot verify through Ancestry.com’s tools the validity or the reliability of the new ancestor proposals that they offer,” Woodbury said. Ancestry has cited the complex nature of the information and the concern for customer privacy as the reasons for not sharing its research.

Despite these hesitations, Woodbury still believes genetic genealogy is the future of family history and views Ancestry as a leader in this shift.

“I think that Ancestry.com is making great strides in taking us toward that day where genetic information will help connect us to individuals with whom we can collaborate on our shared family history,” Woodbury said. “I think that with this development, much of the work of genealogy will shift from establishing kinship connections between individuals to searching out the details and stories of their lives.”

Ancestry has also made an array of tutorials available to subscribers. Ancestry Academy seeks to help connect people to their ancestors through supplementing users’ skill in family history research.

Ancestry Academy provides subscribers with a database of instructional videos on a variety of topics within family history research. The lessons are taught by experts in the family history and genealogy areas.

“Whether you are just beginning your family history research or are an expert genealogist, nearly anyone can learn something new from the terrific lineup of expert instructors featured on Ancestry Academy,” Director of Ancestry Academy Laura Prescott said.

Kathy Hale, a teaching assistant in the BYU family history lab, said one of the biggest difficulties for new family history researchers is not knowing how to get started.

“It not only helps them to understand better what they need to be doing, but it also allows them to have questions answered that they either didn’t know they needed to ask or that they were too embarrassed to ask,” Hale said.

Some have criticized Ancestry’s previous education efforts for ignoring other family history resources in order to promote its own products, and this concern arises again with the introduction of Ancestry Academy.

“If Ancestry is willing to host presenters who may hold views critical of the company, and if they are willing to host presenters who will point researchers to the best resources regardless of their ownership, then I can see Ancestry Academy being a great success,” Woodbury said.

Ancestry has great confidence in its new additions, despite the criticism. “We are truly helping people discover, preserve and share their family history better and faster than ever,” Deighton said. “Ancestry’s customers can now take advantage of these new opportunities and discover what they have to offer.”

Ancestry customers can look toward the continued expansion of the company’s extensive family history resources.

“At Ancestry, we are never satisfied with the status quo. The idea of bringing new resources and features to our members is always on our mind,” Deighton said.

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