From the streets to the Ivory Towers and back – the other side of conflict research, Part 2 – James Hall

Last month, the first part of this article offered an introduction to the research into conflict and violence undertaken by Universities and other institutions. This month, we will look at how this extensive body of institutional research can be accessed.

The main channel by which academic and other institutional research is exposed to the rest of the world is academic journals. Tens of thousands of different journal titles are published worldwide, containing articles written by researchers and reviewed by peers, i.e. other researchers in the same field as the author. Journals may be published in print, electronic or both forms. Unfortunately for the lay reader, academic journals are nowhere near as accessible, and often nowhere near as readable, as the books and blogs and websites which many of us are more used to. Most academic journals provide access on a subscription basis only, which for individuals can be expensive – over £100 / US$150 per journal per year in some cases. Some ‘open access’ journals can be accessed free of charge, usually online, but the journals with the strongest reputations for high quality research often charge the highest subscription fees, and vice-versa. Identifying relevant journals from the vast number of published titles can also be challenging, particularly in an inter-disciplinary field such as conflict and violence. Some journals exist which are specific to the field, and relevant research is also published in journals specific to each of the many disciplines which conduct research into the various dimensions of conflict and violence.

Lastly, research in academic journals is presented in a format and style which is intended for an academic audience, not the lay reader. Academic readers will be interested in not only the outcome of the research and its implications, but also in its design, the quality of its statistical analysis, and so on. Sections of some academic articles will be meaningless to any reader who doesn’t have at least some education in statistics beyond High School level. All of these challenges can, however, be overcome, with a little effort.

The most accessible starting point when exploring academic research is Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com). Entering search terms (e.g. ‘teen dating violence’) into Google Scholar will return a list of academic resources matching the search terms. Often, only a summary of each article will be available, but in some cases the full article may be accessible as a PDF or via a web link. However, this is a comparatively unstructured approach which may not be the best if you are looking for high-quality research on a specific topic, in which case your nearest University is probably the best resource.

Most Universities have institutional subscriptions to numerous journals, which are made available for students, faculty and staff via their Library service. Some Universities also offer access to members of the public, although practice varies widely. For example, in the UK: Bristol University offers no public access at all; Oxford University’s Bodleian Library provides public access to its printed and electronic resources for £38 (c. US$60) per year; Birmingham University offers access free of charge to its printed resources for up to ten visits per year, or unlimited access to printed resources and limited access to electronic resources at a cost of £50 (c. US$80) per year; and Nottingham University provides unlimited public access to printed resources and its pubic e-resource suite completely free of charge. In all cases though, resources can only be accessed at the physical location of each University’s library – printed resources cannot be borrowed, and electronic resources cannot be accessed remotely. A good starting point would be to contact the Library service at your nearest University and ask about their public access policy.

Identifying relevant and credible journals is just as much of a challenge for students as for members of the public. Consequently all University libraries have expert staff who will be happy to offer help in this regard. Demand for this service from students tends to be greatest as deadlines approach, which tend to be towards the end of terms / semesters, so the Librarian service (or equivalent) may be more available in the middle of term / semester when student demand is lower.

Examples of relevant journals include:

Subscription-based:

  • Psychology of Violence (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/vio/)
  • Journal of Interpersonal Violence (http://jiv.sagepub.com/)
  • Violence and Victims (http://www.springerpub.com/violence-and-victims.html)

Open access:

  • Journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour (http://www.journals.elsevier.com/aggression-and-violent-behavior/open-access-articles/)
  • Journal of Injury and Violence Research (http://jivresearch.org/jivr/index.php/jivr/index)

Some subscription-based journals offer open access to selected articles, e.g. the International Journal of Conflict and Violence (http://www.ijcv.org/)

The credibility of journals and individual articles can often be gauged by the number of times a specific article, or articles published in a specific journal, are referenced by other researchers. The databases to which University libraries often provide this information, and again the Librarian service should be able to show you how to access this information. This is only one indicator, however – newer research will obviously have been referenced by other researchers less frequently than older research.

Gathering the important information from journal articles is largely a matter of understanding how they are written. Articles presenting different types of research will be presented in different formats, but most will follow a structure resembling the following:

Abstract: All articles will begin with an abstract, which is a short summary (usually no more than 200 words) of the article. A well-written abstract will state why the research was done, how it was done, the main outcome of the research and the main implications, in a style which is easy to read. The purpose of the abstract is to enable the reader to decide whether to invest time in reading the full article, which is important for the academic audience, but for the lay reader the abstract will often provide enough information by itself. Subscription-based journals which are published online often make the abstracts of their articles available free of charge, charging only for access to the full article.

Introduction: The main body of the article will normally start with an Introduction, which sets out the background to the specific piece of research and why it was done. It should clearly state the ‘research question’, i.e. the specific question which the research aims to answer. This section usually contains references to earlier relevant research, so it is always worth reading the Introduction as it can point you in the direction of other articles which may be of interest.

Method: The next section normally describes the method by which the research was carried out, which could be anything from an online questionnaire to a complex lab experiment to a thirty-year longitudinal study. This section is vitally important for the academic audience, as it enables other academics to attempt to replicate the research in order to confirm or challenge its findings. Where the article is based on studies of real people (as opposed to published statistics or analysis of other research), for example psychology experiments, this section should include a description of the Participants, i.e. who took part in the study. This description should consist of the number of participants, the range and average of their ages and the proportion of males and females. In some cases, particularly in large or long-term studies, researchers will select their participants very carefully in order to try and make their sample as representative as possible of the population in general. In other cases, researchers will use ‘opportunistic sampling’, i.e. whoever is available. Understanding the profile of the participants is important in deciding the extent to which the findings of the research apply to the population as a whole. If the sample is strongly weighted in favour of one gender, or drawn from only a narrow range of ages etc., the less generally applicable the findings may be.

Results: In a well-written article, the Results section should set out the results of the research in plain English (or whatever the language of publication happens to be) and provide the statistics to back it up. The plain English part should suffice for those of us not expert in statistical analysis.

Discussion: The Discussion section usually links the findings of the study back to the earlier research identified in the Introduction – e.g. whether the study supports or contradicts earlier findings. It should also set out the implications of the research, for example whether it challenges the accepted understanding of a phenomenon or current social policy. In a well-written article it should also identify areas for further research and the authors’ reflections upon their own research, e.g. with hindsight, whether the method could have been improved.

In summary, while the language in which academic articles are written may not always be easy for the non-expert reader to follow completely, by understanding the typical structure of an article it is possible to find and absorb the most important pieces of information.

Following the work of specific researchers is another way to keep up with developments in relevant research areas. All journal articles will give the name of their author(s) and their institution(s). Institutions normally provide a ‘People search’ and/or ‘Contact search’ function on their website, which will enable you to find the web pages and contact details of the author. Many researchers are happy to be contacted by people interested in their research, and of course some will be active bloggers and users of social media.

Currently, it seems that there is little crossover between the worlds of experience-based and academic research into conflict and violence. I hope that this article will be a starting point in developing links between these two worlds, and that you will start to explore the immense body of institutional research into conflict and violence for yourself. I personally am about to return to study with the intention of getting into research into the psychological aspects of conflict and violence. It’ll take a while to get there, but along the way I hope to develop more and stronger links between the worlds of practical self protection and institutional conflict and violence research. If you would like to stay in touch with my progress, or discuss any matter covered by this article, please find me on Facebook (/james.hall.902819) or e-mail me at hall.jp@gmail.com.

 

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