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Crime rates, reporters, and experts. A cautionary tale

When it comes to crime, journalists are typically interested in answering three logical questions:

• Is the crime rate increasing or decreasing? (This is usually framed as “Is crime out of control insert jurisdiction here?”)
• What can we realistically do about it?
• And are the police or politicians doing enough to address this challenge?

But in the process of answering these questions, both reporters and sometimes those asked to comment, often neglect (and fail to mention and explain) a handful of contextual issues.

The first concerns the reliability of crime statistics. Most experts understand that not all crime that occurs is reported to law enforcement. There are lots of reasons why, but it’s widely accepted that the types of crimes that we have the best data on are homicides when there is a dead body, and car thefts where the owners usually file a claim with an insurance agency.

So when reporters, police, or politicians talk about non-fatal/non-lethal shootings, for example, in general these are undercounted. More importantly drawing conclusions about them, is primarily speculation. For example, just because a person is shot does not mean that they are going to die. A number of things can happen to save that persons’ life so the event is not classified as a non-fatal shooting (i.e., very good and improved emergency room procedures, quicker response times by emergency medical personnel, and first responders have improved their ability to sustain life). Alternatively high rates of non-fatal shootings, may be the result of a higher than average number of shooters who are unskilled and thus bad shooters. Also maybe the guns they are using are lousy and are not accurate?

Second, and more recently, there have been claims that bail reforms are leading to an increase in crime. Yes we can point to individuals who while out on bail have engage in crimes, some of them quite horrific, and thus it would be a seductive to make this kind of relationship. But the there no clear empirical evidence that bail reform is leading to increase in violent crime.

Third, another assumption is that if we only had more or better police then crimes would fall. Again, Criminology 101 (and most human services classes) will tell you that crime is not as closely connected to police practices as most people think, but instead, is the result of numerous things happening in families, streets, communities, and the economy in general. The police are only one aspect of crime control. This means that they can only have a minor effect on large macro social processes like crime, and in turn crime rates. Thus, contrary to Eric Adams, the recently elected Democratic electoral candidate, more police does not necessarily mean less crime. In fact, it can have the opposite effect because more police on the street means that each one has a vested interest in detecting crime, criminals, etc. and thus this in turn will boost crime statistics.

Fourth, another frequent assertion is if we only had more and better paying jobs we would see less crime. This might be true if all crimes were financially motivated, but jealous lovers rarely physically hurt or kill their loved ones (i.e., domestic violence) because of disputes over money.

Fifth, there is a popular belief that if one type of crime is increasing in frequency, then there is a tendency to assume that all categories of crime are also going up. Reporters and those who are asked to comment on these trends sometimes fail to disaggregate all crime versus violent crime versus homicides. This is when it is important to realize that almost every type of crime has a different causal dynamic.

Finally, there’s a tendency to see what happens in one city in terms of crime, must be occurring throughout the country. We know that in some jurisdictions violent crime is up and others it is down. There are micro level processes going on in neighborhoods and by extension cities that just don’t translate in a national manner.

Some parting thoughts. Over the past 15 months COVID-19 has significantly changed human interactions, and by necessity it has had an effect on patterns of social interaction, use of public space, and thus individuals proclivity to engage in crime and also be victims of this activity. We have also seen gun purchases soar over this time, but the patterns of use are not completely understood.

Thus what we are seeing, in terms of crime, may be an aberration. The point is both reporters and experts must exercise care in interpreting crime and crime rates, and avoid the tendency to easy to generalize from anecdotal or incomplete evidence.

Photo Credit: Neil Moralee
Is that actually a crime

How editors of academic journals can increase the willingness of scholars to review papers and get better reviews

Scholarly research is significantly improved through peer review. Although for profit organizations, like book publishers, usually pay reviewers a nominal honorarium in the form of money or books, if the research is submitted to an academic journal, peer review is typically done by external reviewers for free.

Experts who are asked to perform these types of review usually make an informal cost-benefit calculation about agreeing to review and the level of their effort. If the expected reward (i.e., commitment to service or a field, etc.) is higher than their projected expenditure of level of effort (including competing obligations) they may agree to review a paper.

However, if the process of peer reviewing is unnecessarily bothersome and burdensome, not only will reviewers be disinclined to assist journal editors, but they may also be reluctant to submit papers for review to those journals.

I get it. Acting as a journal editor is a thankless, but necessary task. And it is difficult to secure reviews from qualified reviewers in a timely manner, especially ones that will assist both the researchers who submit papers and ones that will make your job easier.

That’s why it’s very important that journal editors continuously ask themselves, how can they make the donation of this necessary free labor as painless and attractive as possible, and insure that reviewers will do it again?

One way to insure that potential reviewers will accept invitations to review is by making the process and experience as user friendly as possible and recognizing reviewer’s efforts in a manner that is meaningful.

Here are my suggestions, some of which journals do and others that some may benefit from:

1. Be careful about turning the day-to-day management of the journal over to others, unless you are going to properly supervise them. If you are a journal editor and you are too busy with your own teaching, research, or administrative/service work, then consider sharing the task of running a journal, in an equitable manner with one or more competent colleagues.

2. I understand the importance of giving all paper writers a chance, but by the same token, don’t give reviewers papers that you honestly believe are not going to make it through the peer review process. Read or at least skim the paper first before sending it out for review. If you feel that the paper will not pass the review process, then write a few sentences or a paragraph why and send this to the paper writer. Don’t simply pass the buck to your reviewers. Most academics hate to get bench rejects, but it is better to learn early in the process that your paper is inappropriate and why, than hearing it two-six months later from grumpy reviewers.

3. Make sure that the criteria for evaluation of peer reviewed papers are clearly signposted and properly explained. Better still, have separate fields for the reviewers to fill out with a minimum number of characters.

4. Do not use your editorial board’s members as window dressing. Use them, as much as possible to review papers, assist you in finding appropriate reviewers for papers, and in making thoughtful policy decisions you are considering. If one or more of them continuously refuses to review, takes ridiculously long times to complete this task, and needs to be continuously reminded to return their reviews then with fair warning they should be dropped from the editorial board. Have a system to regularly (e.g., yearly) add or replace members on your board. Add new people to the board, from your most active and helpful reviewers to accomplish this task.

5. Don’t burn your reviewers out. Unless you are on the editorial board, sending reviewers more than two papers a year is inappropriate.

6. Send your reviewers periodic reminders when their reviews are due. If they don’t respond to you in a couple of days or at most a week send them a friendly reminder. Reviews that linger more than 2 months are unacceptable. Quick turnaround times are appreciated by authors and word gets around. You get more and better submissions that way.

7. Clearly indicate on the invitation to review when you want the review returned. Due dates should not come as a surprise in the next e-mail the reviewer receives.

8. Don’t ask for a review due in a week’s time after the reviewer has agreed to write it.

9. Mentor reviewers whom you believe could benefit from this kind of assistance so that they can improve this skill. Get a diverse set of reviewers and editorial board members (different countries/racial and ethnic backgrounds/genders, academic ranks, etc.). This usually increases diversity of ideas, gives opportunities to under-represented groups, etc.

10. When the reviews are completed and you have sent them to the author, take the extra step and send an extra blind copy to the reviewers (blind their names too). We like to see how our evaluation compares to our colleagues. Sometimes this gives us an informal benchmark on how to improve our reviewing.

11. In addition to partnering with an organization like Publons that tracks reviewers efforts, once a year publish the names of the reviewers of the articles as an appendix.

There are plenty things wrong with scholarly journals, but one of the easily solvable ones have to do with the peer review process. Over the past two decades, with the advent of e-mail and web-based reviewing platforms significant improvements have been introduced into the paper reviewing process, but the above listed suggestions may improve the process and experience, and assist editors of academic journals to recruit and maintain appropriate reviewers.

Photo: William Murphy
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Who is the real criminologist? And other uncomfortable questions about expertise

Unless I’m mistaken, there are two situations in which people can legitimately claim to call themselves a criminologist.

In the first instance, many criminal justice agencies and other government organizations hire individuals for the job title “Criminologist.” In order to be considered for this designation, the person must possess, the necessary specified qualifications (usually a master’s degree, typically in criminology or criminal justice). These individuals assess crime statistics, or they are involved in the processing of crime scenes.

In the other situation, in general, as long as you have earned a PhD from an accredited university, and you publish your research in peer reviewed journals or books in the field of criminology or criminal justice, you also have a legitimate claim to calling yourself a criminologist.

So what?

Some individuals (often current or retired criminal justice practitioners or people with lived experience – formerly incarcerated citizens, justice impacted or involved, etc.) refer to themselves as criminologists.

Lived, or sometimes labelled firsthand experience can be very important, in helping to understand the subtleties of a situation, process, or profession, but in and of itself lived experience is not equivalent to certification.

Certification typically requires a person to complete a course of studies and training, pass a test, earn a degree, and/or be granted a licensure in a relevant subject area. In general, this process assists a person to gain expertise. Moreover, individuals with lived experience may have valuable insights, and we might want to listen to them or read what they want to say, and perhaps they have something of interest to add to the discussion and thus we can learn from them. But again, they do not have recognized appropriate subject specific certifications. More specifically, just because you have some knowledge about crime, criminals and criminal justice agencies, it may give you some expertise, but it does not grant you a certification, nor does it make you a bona fide criminologist.

Why is calling oneself a criminologist without the appropriate certifications problematic?

To begin with it’s disingenuous to call oneself something when one is not.

Additionally, if almost anyone can call themselves a criminologist without the appropriate certification, etc. it devalues the expertise of people who have gone through the long slog of earning the appropriate degrees, standards, etc.

Moreover, claims to the designation of criminologist without appropriate certification also has the potential to misrepresent what appropriately credentialed criminologists know and do.

I believe that the issue I am addressing is part of the confusion that many people (and organizations) have about the labels, terms, and the relationship among amateurs, authorities, experts, and professionals, and often the lack of knowledge they may also have concerning certification and accreditation. Clearly there is a linkage among these terms, thus this is also a point in time when consulting a dictionary and paying attention to nuance is important.

In general, amateurs do not have as much knowledge, experience and skills as an expert. Experts, on the other hand, typically have specialized knowledge and skills, and may even have some sort of relevant certification, as may the organization they work for, if indeed they work in this kind of setting, has been accredited by a relevant recognized body.

Experts may act in an unprofessional (even amateurish) manner, they may also have difficulty translating their knowledge to a wider audience, but as long as they have the appropriate certifications, then they are still experts.

Why does this occur?

Unlike the professions of architecture, law, medicine, etc. the field of criminology does not have a recognized way to certify individuals to become criminologists, a professional organization to determine and enforce licensing standards, nor sanction those who call themselves criminologist but don’t have the credentials. Thus any individual who wants to call themselves a criminologist can do so at will.

How can this problem be solved?

I have two weak and imperfect solutions to this conundrum. And maybe this is why this problem is so thorny and persists.

On the one hand, criminologists can spend time educating the public about what is needed to be labelled a criminologist. We can even work hard to convince our learned organizations, like ASC or ACJS to do the same. But in all reality I doubt that the general public really cares about this situation.

Alternatively, we might try and convince one or more of our learned organizations to establish a certification or licensing process. This initiative, however, may unnecessarily burdensome and end excluding people with criminal convictions, similar to what has happened with other large licensure bodies Why? One of the first things that a professional organizations often does is to exclude people with criminal records. At the very least ASC or ACJS can try this as an experiment, for a short period of time. And then evaluate it.

Conclusion

We can make it our mission to point out every time we see, meet or learn of someone who claims to be a criminologist is not what in fact they claim to be. Although this may provide some personal satisfaction at some level to some people, it also seems to be an exhausting process. Until then we will live with complicated issue.

photo credit nist6dhFollow
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