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How do I know that the statistics I’m using are credible?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Requests for current and accurate statistics are one of the most typical inquiries received by the NRCDV. Inquiries from callers range from general requests for the latest national statistics or state-by-state data to more specific requests such as the full citation for a particular statistic or information about the accuracy of a frequently used ”fact.” Callers usually plan to use the statistics to: 1) highlight the data in publications, training events, or community presentations for educational and/or fundraising purposes; 2) develop evidence-based prevention or intervention programs; 3) advocate for changes in systems’ responses to domestic violence; or 4) develop talking points to engage the media in effectively communicating anti-violence messages.

Not all research is created equal – either in its scientific quality or its practical value. There are several questions to consider when deciding whether or not to read a research report, and if we do choose to read it, whether or not to trust what we read.” (Beeman, 2002)

Given that research is such an invaluable tool, it is important that advocates think critically about the research findings they are using to support their work. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Where did the funding for the research come from?
  • Who conducted the research, and with whom are they affiliated?
  • What was the purpose of the study?
  • What was the data collection strategy?
  • How reliable and valid are the data collection and measurement tools used?
  • What populations were included/excluded?
  • How are the key research terms defined (such as intimate partner violence, sexual coercion, or rape)?
  • What questions were asked, and how?
  • When was the information gathered?
  • How were the data coded, analyzed, and reported?

Often, statistics are incorrectly credited to secondary sources (organizational websites, court testimonies, newspaper articles, among others) rather than to the primary source (that is, the individual researcher or organization who conducted the study). To reduce the chance of perpetuating inaccurate information, it is recommended that you always use and fully cite the original study whenever possible. More information on evaluating and using research data in your work can be found on VAWnet.

We Can Help to Navigate the Data Maze

If there is uncertainty as to the origin of a particular statistic or if the data appear unclear, incomplete, or contradictory, it is important to consult the source for clarification before using the statistic. NRCDV staff may be able to help callers track down the original source or provide the full citation for the requested statistic. The NRCDV can also help callers identify the most current and reliable resources available, and engage with callers in thinking critically about the data. A few of the most common reports and data sources offered to callers in response to their requests for research/statistics on domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking are listed below. Additional research data can be found in VAWnet’s Research area.

Criminal Victimization, 2010 (Bureau of Justice Statistics)
This report presents 2010 estimates of rates and levels of criminal victimization in the U.S. Although not specific to domestic violence and sexual assault, it provides the most current information on nonfatal crimes committed by intimates. In addition to estimating the percentages of female and male victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), this report also describes long-term trends in IPV and victims’ characteristics. Data for this report is generated by the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is an annual survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) (see also Female Victims of Violence and Intimate Partner Violence In The U.S.). The NCVS collects information on nonfatal victimizations, reported and not reported to the police, against individuals age 12 or older from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households. Despite its values, this survey is thought to underestimate the prevalence of domestic violence. Researchers have attributed the low rate of intimate partner violence uncovered by the NCVS to the fact that it is administered in the context of a crime survey. That is, estimates reflect only the violence that victims label as criminal and report to interviewers (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). Note also that Armed Forces personnel living in military barracks and institutionalized persons, such as correctional facility inmates, are not included in the scope of this survey.

Domestic Violence Counts: 2010. A 24-hour census of domestic violence shelters and services (National Network to End Domestic Violence)
The National Census of Domestic Violence Services (Census) is an annual noninvasive, unduplicated count of adults and children who seek services from U.S. domestic violence shelter programs during a single 24-hour survey period. This survey, however, doesn’t exactly count how many people were victims of domestic violence but rather how many people sought services from domestic violence programs on the designated day (note that not all victims seek services from domestic violence programs). Keeping in mind also that multiplying the 1-day total by 365 to create an annual number would be inaccurate because: 1) some victims may only use services once a year, while others may do so multiple times a year; and 2) most programs experience days when many victims seek services and some days when few victims seek services.

When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2009 Homicide Data (Violence Policy Center)
This annual report details national and state-by-state information on female homicides, including additional information for the 10 states with the highest rates of femicide. The study uses the most recent data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unpublished Supplementary Homicide Report (the 2011 report covers data from 2009). This report provides information on the number of women who are killed by their intimate partners in a given year, but it does not focus solely on domestic violence homicides. The study examines only those instances involving one female homicide victim and one male offender, analysis which excludes other possible scenarios.

This month, we are anticipating the release of an important new data set from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). For more information about this new data on incidence and prevalence of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking victimization, visit the NISVS Resource Page and stay tuned!

If advocates are well informed about the available statistics and are equipped to think critically about their value and limitations, research data can be used in very impactful and effective ways.

What sources of data do you rely on in your work to end violence against women? What are some examples of ways that you have successfully used data in your work?