Reconsidering peer review in police research and what we mean by ‘impact’: Learning from those doing the job

Peer review is a term we all love in academia. After long hours spent writing up our research findings, ideas and new concepts for discussion we hit send to an academic journal publication only to hear back that we haven’t been analytical enough, there is not enough evidence cited, the structure is wrong or the research methods are flaky. Therefore the piece is considered not robust enough to justify a publication.

I don’t know many academics who have never, in their career, received a rejection or a dreaded ‘you need to make ‘major’ modifications in order for us to reconsider this paper’ The worst thing is you don’t know who has made these recommendations. It may be a colleague, a friend or even someone you really admire and respect – hence the internalised embarrassment about not being good enough is based on the unknown and the mysterious.

The purpose and current structure for peer reviewing in the police context crossed my mind this week as a result of attending the Society of Evidence Based Policing. I was lucky enough to be asked to present at the conference with Dr Ian Hesketh. We discussed our thoughts, at the conference, on the potential use of social media as a way of capturing views about current police practice and issues arising that might be affecting the people from the voice of the practitioner themselves. Such information around local police knowledge might be useful for other officers as a way of gaining support about their concerns; local leaders for them to understand issues affecting their staff and for us as academics exploring insights into policing for further research and review.

Such a concept may be laced with a range of methodological problems but we believe that the conversations that have emerged on forums such as Twitter offer a different kind of awareness about a range of contemporary police issues – not least how current changes to the police organisation are affecting officers and staff. Furthermore, at a time when officers are feeling excluded from much of this change and disengaged from the process it seems like an ideal opportunity that is worthy of exploration.

As I researched this paper, I came across a number of articles concerned with the use of internal web based forums and social media communication as a way of engaging employees in local decision making. There was information about how its use can develop innovation, raise self-esteem and of course help with the sharing of knowledge across organisations – all of which are issues the police are struggling with at the moment.

Conversely, much of what I found about the use of social media in a policing context was focused on the way it can, of course, provide information to the public via local ‘official’ Twitter handles aimed at just that. However in terms of officers voicing their thoughts, the feedback was rather more negative. Issues around not being able to say certain things, inconsistency within and between forces about social media policies and a fear of being reprimanded for saying the wrong thing etc. etc. Whilst this not only raises issues around fairness it also means that a wealth of potential information goes untouched.

Having seen papers last week on the perceptions officers continue to have of evidence based policing (particularly some excellent findings delivered by a PhD student from Huddersfield University) I realised that the findings relating to key challenges around embedding EBP mirror those that I found myself quite a while back. In research I conducted with crime analysts both in the early 2000s and more recently for the College of Policing in 2014 the issues were the same – products and findings were seen as operationally unclear, EBP is seen as a threat to professional identity and judgement, many have never heard of EBP and some officers don’t feel they have a voice within the process.

And so …….. my point about peer review and how we as policing academics also need to consider options to engage practitioners in our products at every stage – not just simply at the beginning of the process. Much of what being an academic in policing is focused on is the ability to make our research findings useful to those who may use it. Not to write lengthy research reports that potentially might never see the light of day in a practical environment but to provide that community with action based, operationally useful findings which can be implemented to drive change. We expect most of our postgraduate students at CCCU to keep an eye on ‘keeping it real’ and some of our students are asked to produce operational reports or briefings in addition to a heavy thesis which is strictly externally examined for academic rigour. Writing in an applied way is a skill for us in academia and it is not an easy task. However surely within a context that is pushing for evidence based practice amongst all ranks and roles, the usefulness of research outputs must be key.

Of course the aims of any research in the police world are two fold – clearly for an academic the aim is to provide knowledge on a given subject that can be utilised within the academic sphere in order to build theory and further understand the complexities of a number of issues. BUT the other aim and of course most importantly for the user of the work is the drive to develop key recommendations and outputs that facilitate change for the practitioner at all levels.

I don’t need to highlight once again my view on the importance of gaining the voice of the practitioner in the research process but what about gaining that insight at the end of the project – that is surely what true collaboration should be in terms of the co-production of knowledge and knowledge outputs. For those universities that are involved in collaboration agreements I am sure this regularly happens, however perhaps not yet as regularly as it should according to the ongoing challenges to evidence based practice.

How can we get practitioners more involved and what can we learn from them?

It came to me after the SEBP conference that perhaps one of the ways we might be able to involve officers more is in the review of our research outputs. We all know that there are some academic journals that are more highly regarded than others by academics but there are some very practical journals available now that are more intended to engage with both police practitioners and academics. Therefore surely the work presented in these publications needs to be understandable, practically relevant and should use clear and transparent language over what can be perceived as academic jargon.

Impact in the academic world is what we currently strive for as part of the REF – indeed when I review an article I am not necessarily looking for the ease of understanding for a police officer who might be trying to implement the findings later on. However the meaning of impact for police organisations and practitioners is something different and perhaps therefore what we mean by impact as operational researchers needs reconsidering. I wonder how much we can further engage practitioners in this process through practitioner review somehow. Is there an option to have a practitioner reviewer on board if the research being presented is aimed at changing or influencing police practice?

It seems to me that such engagement might be positive for two reasons: it offers another way of involving the police in the production of ‘useful knowledge outputs’ which are aimed at them’ and therefore, this may have the potential to help them understand the objectives of EBP more widely than they currently do.

Secondly I wonder if there is worth in drawing the practitioner in to the development of different types of outputs as more standardised practice. A key point raised in one of the pieces of work I came across in my research for our conference paper was a piece on how social media might offer a method to further engage officers not simply in the inputs of research at the start of a project but actually as a forum to gain feedback from practitioners about the outputs of the research itself.

It seems that research and researchers continue to be viewed by some practitioners as being involved in a process that simply involves gathering data, getting published and then officers and other interested parties having to search and retrieve research in order to make sense of it themselves. I wonder if social media might offer a method to create a ‘multi layered, socialized arena for commentary’ (Lievrouw, 2010: 3). This would assist academics in the hard and complex task of making research useful for those doing the job. In addition, practitioner review may offer an assurance that research impacts at every level and not just to an academic community who may after all being looking for something entirely different from their research.

 

EMMA WILLIAMS

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