Research, funding and reputation

Posted on March 20, 2014. Filed under: Education, forensic | Tags: , , , , , |

I had an interesting conversation, last night, with some fascinating figures from the world of forensic science. Since the whole event was under Chatham House rules, I’m not going to disclose who was present or even what most of our discussion was about, but there was one thing we touched on where I have a fundamental disagreement with at least one senior figure. That area is academic research in forensic science.

The view taken is that the problem lies in funding – in order to stimulate forensic science research, money needs to be available. Well, great – yes, that can help and I’m delighted that FoSciSIG is looking at this. I was certainly lucky enough, during my academic career, to be awarded some EPSRC funding for a project on Cyberprofiling, and I think we did achieve something, but we had a bigger problem. We really struggled to get our results published and to be taken seriously.

Our problem was that, at that time, there was no well-recognised journal for digital forensics, so we had to either target more mainstream computing & info. sec. journals, or go for more general forensic science. In the case of the former, we had problems because our research was very much applied research and hence didn’t have quite the level of generality and “blue sky” content that was expected, and for the latter, we were up against reviewers who were more familiar with “conventional” biology, chemistry and physics type forensic science. In either case, we had to consider the “reputation” value of where we were going to publish too. It’s been a common problem for forensic science researchers for years and it has a nasty knock-on effect.

In order to get published, you often have to seek out a journal for the scientific area, rather than the forensic, and modify your writing to suit that journal. Pressure is often brought to bear to get your work in something with a high “impact” rating rather than the most appropriate channel for dissemination. As a result, your work can be categorised under the more general science, and the forensic nature is often missed. When research managers look at your output, you are no longer a forensic scientist, so the department doesn’t see any benefit in supporting forensic science and that message spreads. Don’t believe me ? Look at the Research Assessments.

The net effect is that, contrary to what senior academics might say, forensic science can be seen as something which is a spin-off from other research, something of an accidental side-effect which just happens because of good science, not something that deserves to be a discipline in its own right influenced by the needs of investigators and courts, so departmental management don’t encourage it, and without their backing there’s no call for funding bodies to take it more seriously.

Out in the practitioner world, one message we all receive very quickly is that the forensic sciences cannot stand on their own – we have to work in teams, with results from different sciences being integrated and influencing the investigative strategy. Heck, that’s even a fundamental message in most degree programmes now.

I was lucky enough to be a computer scientist in a department full of biologists, chemists, physicists and crime scene specialists once. I learnt a hell of a lot from and it changed my approach to digital investigations. If we could just achieve something similar in the research world, we might do something really significant.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please do share them in the comments.

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5 Responses to “Research, funding and reputation”

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So, here comes the naive and unworkable suggestion:

Why don’t you create that journal?

It’s a chicken and egg thing – for a journal to attract publications, it now needs an impact rating, to get an impact rating, it needs publications. We need to change the way we measure “success” in research, especially in forensic science. (and I already review for a few journals which fit the criteria – no need to create yet another one, there are already far too many, btw).

But if you are on good terms with many good practitioners, then encouraging them to focus publication in selected journals helps you grow an egg.

Another side issue is that other “impact” metrics might be applicable in the near future. Dissemination by other, non-journal routes might even be feasible in the near future. For example, with a wikimedia head on, I know there has recently been discussion within Jisc, for example, about public channels such as the wikimedia ecosystem being considered as appropriate impact channels where public funding is provided.

I know this doesn’t change the fundamental problem in current terms, but we may be near a point where some of those consideration might need rebalance (see also discussions about Open Journal models and concern over some academic publishers’ “gatekeeper’ roles).

Angus, it seems we are on the same wave. We (general forensic people) have to find the roots (e.g. where are a borders betweem technical operation, forensic examination and forensic science, etc.). It seems like all we are talking about forensic science, but nobody(?) is able to build seriouse background (vague or general definition is not enough, seriouse system and system approach is needed). That is why I study this time areas like “system approach to the expert engineering” and try to find answers for more general questions, like you describe in your blog.
BTW – do you know the criteria for accepring some area as a new sicience? 😀

DS, My primary concern is not about publications – it’s about a lack of recognition that forensic science is something more than “regular” science. It has the added dimension of applicability to investigative and judicial problems. Until the managerial strata accept that it needs to exist as a discipline in its own right, it will always struggle to achieve something of true significance. We are past the point where “side-effects” of other work are enough, we need to find ways to create proper multi-disciplinary research groups who can consider how the sciences integrate in support of the production of real evidence (in the judicial sense).

Publication is just one aspect of it. Academic researchers are being conditioned to fit into existing niches and not try to do anything truly innovative.


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    This is the weblog of Angus M. Marshall, forensic scientist, author of Digital Forensics : digital evidence in criminal investigations and MD at n-gate ltd.

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