DNA Expert Reports in Australia: The Need for Better Science Communication

DNA experts in Australia are producing reports which are difficult to read, lack logical structure and are filled with technical jargon, according to a recent study published in Forensic Science International.

The study, which looked at reports from six Australian states and territories, raises questions  as to whether members of the police force and court officials are fully understanding the content of expert reports submitted during investigations or as evidence in trials.

Applying Flesch Reading Ease scores to the reports investigated, the study found that expert reports submitted to police were ‘fairly difficult’ in terms of readability, whilst reports submitted to courts were ‘difficult’. 

Poor communication between DNA experts, legal professionals and the police can have disastrous results in criminal trials. In 2009, 22 year old Farah Jarah was wrongly convicted and spent 15 months in jail after a sample of his DNA contaminated evidence from a rape victim. A subsequent judicial report released in 2010 found that poor communication between forensic experts and other officials were a key factor in the miscarriage of justice.

Effective communication of forensic evidence is always difficult. Experts within a field must translate their work for a non scientific audience, somehow stripping the technical jargon whilst preserving the general scientific conclusions. This is particularly hard when ones audience are time-poor and stubborn legal and enforcement professionals.

Nevertheless, good science communication can be done effectively. The US-based National Forensic Science Technology Centre has an excellent free short course for DNA experts on how to communicate results effectively (although the website is a sight for sore eyes!). Moreover, for an excellent example of science communication I recommend this lecture series on the use of DNA evidence in criminal trials by cybergenetics company TrueAllele.

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