What’s the point when research on sexual offending has no links to practice?

Ross Bartels

The measure of greatness in a scientific idea is the extent to which it stimulates thought and opens up new lines of research” – Paul Dirac (physicist)

A good deal of research is being conducted by both academics and clinicians to help us understand, assess, and treat sexual offenders. As such, it is understandable to see ‘nextgen’ researchers (myself included) wanting to provide a valuable contribution to the field. However, finding a ‘great scientific idea’ can to be a challenging endeavour. There are a great many factors inherent to the understanding of human behaviour, and offending behaviour is no exception. Luckily, as researchers in forensic psychology, we have a vast body of psychological literature (whether it be a principle, theory, method, or findings from a study) to draw upon when formulating a specific research question. I find this process exciting, as you never know when you might find a ‘hidden gem’ that will reveal new ways of understanding, assessing, and treating sexual offenders.

Knowing there are many ‘nextgen’ researchers entering this field, I want to discuss an issue that I think has the potential to undermine future research in the sexual offending field. The issue I’m referring to is the idea that research should only be conducted if it is directly related to clinical practice. Some researchers and clinicians appear to be of the opinion that research within the field of sexual offending is not relevant if it has no identifiable link to practice or does not tackle a specific clinical issue. I disagree with this position.

Before I go on, first let me state that, of course, any research that is done with a clinical question in mind is of great value, especially when it is well-communicated to clinicians. Such research would include creating, validating, and/or furthering our understanding of assessment tools; validating treatment techniques; establishing risk factors that are related to recidivism; helping offenders to desist from reoffending; and identifying factors that can affect the therapeutic climate.

In contrast, some research is simply done for the goal of knowledge acquisition. That is, wanting to understand a phenomenon, such as distorted beliefs, sexual interest, and offending behaviour. And in doing this research, sometimes the application to clinical practice is not always apparent. When research such as this is communicated at a conference, for example, it is not uncommon to hear questions such as “How can we use these findings?” or “How is this relevant to our work?” While these are certainly pressing issues in our field, there are points in a program of research where these questions simply cannot be addressed (at least just yet anyways).

One reason as to why these views are held may be due to the definitional issues related to forensic psychology. Many definitions regard forensic psychology as the application of psychology to the courts and judicial system, while some regard it as a clinical subspecialism. However, Bartol and Bartol (2008) take the broad view that forensic psychology includes: 1) a research endeavour (e.g., to understand criminal behaviour); and 2) professional practice (e.g., within the legal or mental health system). I argue that an important research endeavour within the sexual offending field should be designing and conducting studies that aim to solely understand a phenomenon.

Given that the topic of such research will be related to sexual offending, it is likely that a clinical implication will eventually become apparent. For example, the researcher may realise it once the results are gained, or it be identified by a second party (e.g., someone reading the published findings or during a discussion at a conference). Alternatively, the implication may simply come to light as more research is conducted. There are examples of this occurring already (e.g., the fMRI work being done by Dr. James Cantor) and I have had some first-hand experience. For example, one of my research aims has been to understand what a sexual fantasy is, and the results of one study have opened up the possibility of developing a new treatment technique for deviant fantasies. It is likely that this idea would not have been realised had the study not been designed and conducted from the basis of wanting to understand the phenomenon.

Thus, I would love to see the sexual offending field open itself up fully to the idea of researching a topic for the sake of understanding. That is, for there to initially be no (or little) connection to practical realities. Academic platforms and communities (such as conferences and the nextgenforensic blog) could allow researchers and clinicians to play around with conceptual ideas until they progress and develop into solid research proposals. The findings could then be discussed and connected to clinical practice after the initial studies. For me, this is truly an exciting prospect. Not only will such a shift in opinion enhance the field as a whole but it will also serve to ‘stimulate thought and open up new lines of research’.

Suggested citation:
Bartels, R. (2014, March 25). What’s the point when research on sexual offending has no links to practice? [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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3 thoughts on “What’s the point when research on sexual offending has no links to practice?”

  1. Hey Ross, I’ve been consuming and adding to this lit for many years. I agree with your primary thesis. To add a little bit, I’ve never had a problem making the linkage between the two.The inductive process for many of us includes questions driven by clinical observation: all but three of my papers were driven by or related to a case or set of cases. This is true for many of us baby boomer researchers including Bill Marshall and many others. Translation of research is often a learned versus taught skill and is, I think, the function of ATSA and other conferences. One way I’ve engaged further in this is to include other more clinical folks on my research, presentation, and consultation teams. Very rewarding! The point if science for science’s sake is not lost on pure clinicians at all, but making clear what was found without confusing people with stats and research jargon helps. Keep up the good research and thinking!
    P.S. if willing I’d like to cite this. Would you mind emailing me a copy?

  2. Dear David,

    Thank you so much for your comment and support of the post. I really appreciate your insight on this topic. I agree completely with your point about researchers conveying their findings in a clear manner (which is something that is being encouraged more and more across the scientific field as whole it seems). I also agree with your point about clinicians and non-clinicians working collaboratively – in some way – when it comes to a research venture. I have had experience of this myself and also found it to be very rewarding. Perhaps this should be emphasized and encouraged much more within the field? It certainly would ensure that all angles of the idea/findings are appreciated, and that any (unintentional) segregation between clinicians and researchers is avoided. Thank you again for your comment, and I am very happy for you to cite this (I have emailed you a copy as requested).


  3. Hi Ross,

    Keith Kaufman for several years running has offered a seminar at ATSA on how clinicians can publish data which i think move sin the direction you suggest. A bigger more systemic issue for me is the dual sided antimotivational issues that of the tenure process (it takes so much time just to get through an IRB for out work that I have taken to offering my datasets to students and younger colleagues around the world) along with no reward being offered to clinicians who publish at their work sites. While in the United States NIH and most funders DO highly value and offer more evaluative points for collaborations across systems and with both academic and community partners, this is not enough. The same problem exists in the UK as far as i can tell.

    There is a small chance I’ll be at NOTA this year, I assume you will too. Perhaps that is an organization wherein some of this conversation can be furthered?

    Best wishes-

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