It Shouldn’t Read Like a Crime Novel: Lessons from a Project to Summarize Useful Research for Police

Jun 05, 2019


For researchers to influence policy, their work must ultimately reach people making or implementing policy, and yet a gap often exists between the two communities. Rebecca Neusteter witnessed this gap between research and policymaking when she was the director of research, policy, and planning at the New York Police Department (NYPD). Peer-reviewed journals often published articles about policing—and even policing in New York City—but her office did not have subscriptions to those journals and lacked easy, affordable access to the articles. What was available—typically abstracts written for fellow researchers—too often wasn’t useful to people in the department. It seemed to Neusteter like a missed opportunity for relevant research to inform practitioners. Ultimately, that led her to publish a brief, nontechnical digest of recent police-related research that conveyed important takeaways to readers who were hungry for information to help them do their jobs better, but who lacked the time to find and read the full articles.

After Neusteter launched the research digest at the NYPD, she brought the idea with her to the Vera Institute of Justice, a think tank based in New York City, when she became the director of its policing program. Since January 2018, the Institute has published quarterly volumes of the Emerging Issues in American Policing Digest, which covers the latest research on a range of pressing topics in criminal justice, including the effects of body-worn cameras and the relationship between crime clearance rates and the revenue collected by municipal police departments through fees, fines, and forfeitures.

On this week’s episode of On the Evidence, I discuss with Neusteter what she has learned about translating, packaging, and sharing the latest research on policing.

Click here to listen to the full interview. You can also read edited excerpts of the interview in the following transcript.

What do you think keeps useful research from reaching policy and practitioner audiences?

Most academic journals are paid services, so there’s a firewall subscription that actually prevents many readers from being able to access the articles. That's a major barrier. Within academia, publishing in a peer-reviewed journal counts heavily toward being able to receive tenure, but then those peer-reviewed journals—by way of being costly and not widely disseminated—prevent practitioners from having as fluid access to the contents as possible.

On top of that, in many instances, the writing can be quite complex, dense, and very data heavy. The abstracts themselves can bury what the actual main findings are, wanting you to go through [the whole study] as though it’s a crime novel to see at the end what happens. It can be difficult to understand the real value of the research based on the summary.

Finally, I would say, it’s a challenge trying to stay on top of everything. There are so many ways in which we get news and research, whether it’s through social media or magazine, journal, and newspaper subscriptions. At some point, people get overwhelmed. What we had hoped to do is triage all the research that’s being generated and present that information in a free, friendly, simple way that’s totally referenced, so if people want to find out more, they can access the primary materials, the source materials through any summaries that we create.

What are your guidelines when you’re creating these summaries?

We follow Vera’s style guide, but then we have key attributes that must be included in each of the summaries. We include the citation; the research questions; and a description of the intervention, strategy, or program. We write up the methodology. We look at the primary outcome or outcomes, what the most important results are, what could be useful to a police department, and any limitations that might exist related to the findings.

You do that in just three paragraphs?

It's very much my belief that the summaries shouldn’t be longer than three paragraphs. This is something that we struggle with, the balance of how much information is too little or too much. We’ve had discussions about potentially creating longer summaries for articles that are quite long or complicated. My position has been that [the summaries] must not exceed a few paragraphs because we want people to understand the information on the go and to develop an appetite for learning more about these studies and others like them. We don’t think it’s our responsibility to do an extensive review of any of the work. We’re trying to make a collection of what is emerging, what is important, and what we want practitioners and other thought leaders in the field to be considering as they do their work, and it needs to be something that they can ideally digest within half of their commute time.

Is there any reason that abstracts couldn’t look this way, or do you think that they are fundamentally different?

I think in an ideal world an abstract would look like this, at least when you’re referring to summaries of just one article. But I think too often what an abstract is trying to do is get you to buy the article, so it doesn’t sometimes hold all of the information, particularly about the application of the findings or the really frank limitations of the work. There are some exceptions to that. Criminology & Public Policy includes the policy implications section in the abstract, which I think is incredibly helpful and useful.

You've been publishing the digest since January 2018. What feedback have you received?

We now have academics who are forwarding us their papers and saying, “Would you be willing to consider putting this in the digest?” That’s exciting because we think that means that [the researchers] see this as complementary to the work they’re doing. On the bottom of every Emerging Issues digest, we have our contact information, and we encourage people to reach out to us and to make recommendations of particular pieces or areas that we might look into, which has happened.

What have you learned about translating policy research for non-research audiences?

It’s been a terrific reminder that for researchers who have done incredibly well in school and are very good at writing a research report, writing for a practitioner audience is a totally different exercise and requires a different skill set. We constantly have to remind ourselves that the way they teach you to write for research purposes often is not helpful for [communicating with an audience of] practitioners. You have to get through a lot of pages in a typical research report until you get to the findings. We want to tip that on its head and lead with the findings, lead with the things that are most important, and then allow readers to learn more, should they be interested.

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The opinions expressed on the Evidence in Action blog are those of the author(s).