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On academic sources

How spurious claims can be made to sound legitimate.

The standards of scholarship can be quite.... variable

Academic citations

Every year there are large number of new publications on investigative interviewing. Some of these are published in academic journals, some are reports by professional bodies, some are in professional magazines. The standards of scholarship can be quite…. I’m trying to be polite here, so let’s go with…. variable.

One of the most curious sins is the use of citations to previously published works. Citations are normally used when an author makes a claim about a topic or issue and are a way to place that claim into the context of previous knowledge. For example, an author claiming that coercive interrogations can create false confessions will cite previous research showing that this can happen. That’s the theory, but what happens in practice can be quite different. Several major errors should be recognised.

First, opinions are cited as if they were empirical facts. Just because a claim is made, it does not mean it is accurate or true. The burden of proof is always on the claimant. What’s your evidence? This particular problem ties in with a lazy form of academic writing where claims are followed by the name and year of another academic study as if that inclusion instantly proves the validity of the initial claim. It may be that the cited study does offer support for a claim, but is it good evidence? Unless some details of that evidence are given, the reader has no way to know if the support comes from, say, a well-designed study of operational practices, or whether it’s just somebody’s opinion.

Second, facts, in the forms of research findings, are often wildly misinterpreted, so much so that the original authors would not recognise their own work (I speak from experience on this point). In some cases, a series of ambiguous or even contradictory findings, are interpreted as a form of universal proof for whatever point the author wishes to make.

Third, there is often an over-reliance on non-academic sources (e.g., newspaper reports). Sometimes myths become facts through sheer repetition. Fake news is real, if you know what I mean.

Fourth, some (good) studies are cited completely out of context to create a misleading impression. For example, it’s common to find authors arguing that an interview training program for witness and suspect interviews is valid because there is a large body of evidence showing that the Cognitive Interview works…. for witnesses. So then, that would be evidence for just 50% of the training. We have lots of papers (all marked in yellow highlighters) where that’s been done. Proof that A leads to B does not mean that A also leads to C.

Fifth, some studies are cited out of time and context. For example, some very old cases and research studies are cited as if they were contemporary. For example, one well known series of books on interviewing has recycled the same stories for decades (losing tell-tale dates along the way, of course). Yes, I’m looking at you Reid Associates. Some of us have read all the editions. Other times, studies that really were specific to one country are cited as proof of operational practices in another. Back in 1990 we found that British police officers were being trained in the administration of the Miranda rights. Yes, really.

Sixth, some studies are unfairly ignored because they are from other countries. Academics in some countries (we will not name names) seem to believe that theirs is the only continent with sentient life. Just because no one in country 1 has studied an issue, it does not follow that those in countries 2-200+ haven’t done so. In fact, they might have been studying it for over a century.

Dr Stephen Moston

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Blog 02 On Academic sources (January 14,
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