Title: NCJRS (Criminal Justice Database)

Publisher: Office of Justice Programs, DoJ

Cost: free

URL: http://www.ncjrs.gov/abstractdb/Search.asp

Tested: February 15-25, 2006  

A good example when an open access version of a high-quality database provides much more content than  its subscription-based implementation, and also offers high-IQ search features.

 

THE CONTEXT

NCJRS has been one of my favorite examples to illustrate powerful open access databases directly offered by the government. Along with MEDLINE Plus, ERIC, and Transportation Research Information Services (TRIS), the database of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) shows a very good example for taxpayers' money well spent. The entire site exudes professionalism and competence. Here I just focus on the database itself, but the NCJRS site is also a perfect hub for finding a variety of good quality Web sites and sources about criminal justice issues.

The NCJRS database fares very well in the league of databases focusing on criminal justice. Of course, it cannot be compared with the two huge online legal information services, Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, not even with the various Legal Periodical Indexing/Abstracting databases which cover all aspects of the law, such as the Gale Group's Legal Resource Index or H.W. Wilson's Current and (recently introduced) Retrospective Indexes to Legal Periodicals. There are two other databases directly comparable with NCJRS, the Criminal Justice Abstracts of SAGE, and the Criminal Justice Periodical Index (CJPI) of ProQuest.

NCJRS  has been available for many years directly from the content producer, the Office of Justice Programs of the Department of Justice, as well as through Dialog, which also had the Criminal Justice Periodicals Index (CJPI). This latter database was closed in 2000 but not removed from the stable of Dialog. Surprisingly, this inactive database was offered as one of the files with must-have information in September 2004. When I checked it in preparation for this review, the CJPI database was removed from Dialog. This is no wonder as indexing-only databases belong to the  soon-to-be-extinct  species. While Dialog's bluesheet claimed that 10% of the 287,500 records had abstracts, it was likely to be wrong information.

A "quick and dirty search" that I did many years ago showed that the Dialog version of the database is merely an indexing-only species, even though Dialog's bluesheet claimed that 10% of the records had abstract.The search  using the truncated root term crim?>/AB found merely two records, and those were not abstracts but just keywords in the abstract field. On the other hand the CJPI database is alive and well on the site of the producer, Proquest, because it has not only abstracts but also full text records from 65 of the 220 journals covered.

Also is well and alive in the subscription-based, commercial arena, the Criminal Justice Abstracts (CJA) database of SAGE hosted by CSA Illumina with abstracts in practically all of its records. For good measure I checked, and found that  almost half of the records have the truncated term crim* in the records. For additional subscription the full text for nearly 10,000 articles from about 20 journals of the SAGE Full Text Collection of Criminology are also available.

In the open access league, there are several  university law journals for free (believe it or not), and the abstracts of the archive of SAGE criminal justice journals hosted by HighWire Press are also open access, although it represents a relatively small segment of the entire SAGE journal collection at HighWire Press. 

 

THE CONTENT

The NCJRS database has about 187,000 records. This is twice as large as the CJA database of SAGE, but it is about 40%  smaller than the CJPI database of ProQuest (which I could not access for testing its size while working on this review, as the site was reorganized).

NCJRS itself covers the whole spectrum of criminal justice, from crime prevention to law enforcement to the correction system on its very well organized web site, and the database has the same coverage of broad spectrum. It includes information about books, journals, conference papers, government documents, instructional materials, and even audio cassettes and films (but not videos). Still, the emphasis is on journal articles, which make up more than 40% of the source materials.

The database is definitely US-focused, with 80% of the materials published in the U.S., 6% in the UK, 3% in Canada, 2% in Australia. The rest of the materials are published in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and Spain. There are records from other countries, mostly of  English language source documents, although about 5 % of the source documents are in French, German, and Dutch. Interestingly, there are more source documents among the abstracted/indexed materials than Spanish. Italian, Japanese  and Russian language documents make up most of the rest.

The database is very current, and is updated in an exceptionally systematic manner by the producer every week. On Dialog, it is updated monthly.

In 98% of the records you will find abstract, and not just any abstracts, but very substantial and informative ones. They are also enhanced by a single phrase annotation for those who grew up on the Fox channel's 80 Seconds Around the World. While most of the indexing/abstracting databases just take the abstract as published in the source documents (if available), NCJRS staff apparently reads the articles and often creates more informative abstract than the original. This is very impressive, and certainly has an impact also on assigning the most appropriate subject terms in the process of subject indexing.

Here is an example for the same article about the forensic analysis of two fatal fall cases  from the journal  and from NCJRS. Both are informative. Still, the one in the journal  gives a short shrift to the first case of the accidental fall of a woman from a balcony which looked like a homicide. It provides much more details about the second case which looked like a suicide but forensic evidence proved it to be a homicide. The NCJRS abstract has a more balanced proportion, and  is much more informative about the balcony fall case.

 

The most important content difference is that the open access version on the content provider's site offers tens of thousands of full text documents, mostly reports, analyses, survey results, instructional materials, etc.   by government agencies. This  makes the free version incomparably better than the commercial version. The intentionally highly specific search about phishing (to produce a small and easy to check result set) yielded 5 hits from both the open access and the commercial version. The version of the content provider had the full text for 4 of the 5 hits, like for this one, while the commercial version had only the indexing/abstracting records for all the five items. In case of very broad searches, such as domestic violence the ratio is certainly not nearly as high for full text availability.

 

THE SOFTWARE

The usual scenario for the open access and commercial versions of the "same" database is that the former has less content features than the latter, such as the open access version of the Encarta encyclopedia versus its subscription-based version. The open access versions of the databases typically also offer much more limited search capabilities than the subscription-based versions. This is the case, for example, for many dictionaries, where only the header terms can be searched, or looked up, but the definition of the words, their etymological source, first usage, and other fields are not searchable.

In the case of NCJRS we have seen that content-wise it is far superior to the commercial version. It is also true for the search features (but not for the browse and output features where the Dialog implementation has better options).       

The software used by NCJRS (but not by Dialog) offers a nifty thesaurus showing broader, narrower and related terms, and concise but informative scope notes as illustrated by the term embezzlement which is the preferred term for stealing money by the thesaurus (and by the lawyers of rich clients, who embezzled, or put even more softly just misappropriated a few millions). It could be lovelier only if the posting information, i.e. the number of records to which the descriptor was assigned, would also be displayed in the thesaurus.

The NCJRS version also offers the concept searching option which automatically searches synonyms and related terms for the search term entered by the user. The search teenagers in the title field finds 90 matching records. When searching it as a concept, the  result goes up 335 hits because the software smartly searches for synonyms like adolescents both in the plural and singular formats. This is a precious feature, which is surpassed only by the knock-out feature of pattern searching.

Only a very few software offers this option, sometimes referred to as Soundex searching and even fewer do it so well as NCJRS. In reality, very few searchers can spell even half as good as the kids in the preliminary district Spelling Bee competitions. In my native tongue I am not bad, but in English I am vacillating  when I have to spell methamphetamine  (and now as I wrote this word my spellchecker underlines it in red, so it spells even worse than I do, and so do many other scholarly sources, such as the FDA, or NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse).

NCJRS handles the spelling problems with aplomb. When using the correct spelling, and limiting it to the title field the software finds 143 hits. When I tortured the software with a variety of the misspelled variants, it did not even blink, just returned the same or almost the same number of hits with pattern searching turned on. It shows its superb abilities, that even the most brutal misspelling metafetamin which makes this killer drug sound like a vitamin,  will yield 158 hits. Even for good spellers it is a great feature when they forget that, say, in Canadian criminal justice literature the British spelling is used for many words, but they don't have to bother with it in the producer's version of NCJRS.

I wish that at least the  journal name, and author name indexes could be browsed. I wish I could also sort the results by author and journals, but these are minor issues compared to the rich content and the outstanding search  features that this open access database and Web site offers. With the pandemic growth of drug abuse, violence and all kinds of crime, more and more research will be done. The good news is that while the commercial version  costs $40 per connect hour and $0.43 for a "full" record, the open access version charges nothing for the same content, and as a bonus it also delivers many full text documents instantly in PDF and/or HTML format through very intelligent search engine. 

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