The Scientific Investigator: scrutinises, analyses, reports
A scientific investigator researches and reports evidence for publication so that campaigners acting on the information can reform harmful practices. This is a bit like doing investigative reporting (Chapter 4: Investigative Reporter) but has a scientific bearing, making use of statistical techniques and scientific report writing. A science or social science degree could be of value here; however, anyone with a strong ability and fondness for investigating and writing can educate themselves on how to go about doing it. In recent years much has been written about scientific investigative research (1) and proficiency comes with action and practice.
An Example Investigation
Pet shops are fairly easy to identify, open to the public for perusal and, looking innocent, you can question the shop assistants. These factors may be some of the reasons why pet shops have come under the scrutiny of investigative researchers. The aim of these researchers is to protect animals from the pet trade by identifying illegal practices and ill-treatment that can then be acted on. Jordi Casamitjana, an independent animal welfare consultant and investigator, carried out a number of investigations and one was on pet shops in Scotland (2), outlined below.
Scientific work for an investigation comes in at the very beginning. You must take utmost care to design your investigation so that your prospective findings can stand up to thorough questioning by anyone wanting to shoot them down. For example, to investigate pet shops you must first clearly define and state what a pet shop is. One way of doing this is to find out what the law says constitutes a pet shop. If there were no laws relating to this and nothing else acting as a guide, then you would have to write down your own definition, such as ‘a premise that sells animals as pets as a commercial business, excluding breeders who handle or raise pedigree pets for sale’.
You also need an adequate number of pet shops to visit because the more shops you check, the more your findings will be reliable. How many pet shops to choose? This is somewhat subjective but at least a quarter to a third of total pet shops in the region seems reasonable, which is how Casamitjana chose.
There were various other problems Casamitjana had to address before he could set foot inside his first pet shop. One was that he was going to look for abnormal behaviour among the shops’ animals. So what constitutes abnormal animal behaviour? Casamitjana defined abnormal animal behaviour as actions not normally seen in animals living in the wild and he concentrated on stereotypies. A stereotypy is behaviour, seen in humans as well as animals, that is repetitious and appears not to have an obvious function. Pet shop stereotypies include pacing up and down, rocking back and forth, pacing round in circles, head bobbing, and bar-biting (of a cage). You can see stereotypical behaviour in animals at zoos and factory farms. Animal behaviourists think that animals living in unstimulating conditions in captivity perform stereotypies to help them cope with the frustration, boredom and stress of their living conditions. A stereotypical behaviour by an animal indicates a problem of well-being.
Casamitjana identified other conditions indicative of potentially poor welfare in pet shops. He considered the animals’ housing (which might be barren and cramped) and compared it with officially approved standards. He also noted animals trying to escape, animals vocalising, customers teasing or handling the animals, shop assistant proficiency - judged by the shop assistants’ standard of advice - and shop compliance with legal regulations, such as not selling animals to minors. Finally, after detailed preparation, Casamitjana posing as a customer was ready to visit the pet shops.
Among Casamitjana’s findings was that over half the pet shops he visited had animals who showed abnormal behaviour and were clearly distressed, possibly because of inadequate housing. Several shops had poor customer-animal interactions. Shop assistants often failed to give adequate advice and often gave poor advice. Some shops did not have a valid pet shop licence to operate and others were in breach of their licence. Casamitjana wrote his report and it was published by Advocates for Animals as an indictment on pet shop standards. Campaigners working for pet shop animals are now better armed to help these animals. Knowledge is power!
Define Your Subject
A subject for your investigation may not immediately occur to you. Choosing one will then be your first task; read Investigation Ideas in Investigative Reporter, Chapter 4. Three tips are:
- Select an investigation that deeply interests you, for should your interest wane while on the job you may never complete it.
- Always keep your research plan simple. Plans that are initially simple often grow complicated, so if you start with an already complicated plan it is likely to balloon out of control.
- Try to discuss your chosen subject of investigation and work out some details with an established investigator if you can find one (search the Web).
Like Casamitjana, you will have to know how to write a report. The aim of writing one is to convince readers that what you did is important and that action should be taken about your findings. Your research report will be the only concrete evidence of your research. If you do not write a report or have no other documentary evidence, like video, to show what you found then no one will know what you did and no action can be taken. Furthermore, the quality of your research will be judged directly by the quality of your writing (succinct, clear, logical and strictly relevant) and how well you convey the importance of your findings.
The best way to know how to write a report is to study reports by other researchers. To find them check books, journals and the Web. You will see that there are four basic sections to a written report:
- Introduction: the problem and why you are investigating it.
- Methods: what you did to investigate the problem.
- Results: the specific findings of your investigation.
- Discussion: your interpretation of your findings and how it fits in with other investigators work (if any).
You will want a pithy descriptive title for your report and may wish to include other sections in it, like:
- Abstract: a brief statement of what you did, what you found and your conclusions. This goes at the top of your report under the title.
- Acknowledgements: to people who helped you. This could go at the end of the report.
- Appendix: stuff that might be added, like raw data, that does not fit in the body of your report. The Appendix goes at the back of the report.
- References: a list of the authors with their published works that you cite in your report. This goes at the very back of the report.
A strong move is to write a literature review and mix it in with the Introduction. A literature review is a summary of the findings and conclusions of other researchers (if any) on your subject of investigation. For example, you can state in one sentence that so and so, investigating such and such, found this and that and concluded whatever. You should try to build on the findings of other researchers to:
- Add substance to your report.
- Give your report more context, breadth and greater credence.
- Establish yourself as knowledgeable about your subject.
Another good move is to design your study from the outset from the best techniques of other investigative researchers while avoiding their faults. Even if no one has published anything on your subject for investigation, you should mention it. If there are no publications on your subject then you will be a trailblazer and researchers following in your steps will cite you in their report!
(1) Forbes, Derek. A Watchdog’s Guide to Investigative Reporting: a simple introduction to principles and practice in investigative reporting
. Johannesburg: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. 2005. (Accessed online 18 May 2007.)
(2) Casamitjana, Jordi J. Caged to Sell: a study of animal related problems in Scottish pet shops in the year 2003
. Scotland: Advocates for Animals. 2003.
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