Issue Date: November 6, 2017
Letters to the editor
The Reaction “DIY science” (July 17, page 3) reminded me of one of my favorite comments about science projects at the many secondary school science fairs I have judged. All too often, the projects are of a single type with too little creative input from the students. [Most] biology and chemistry projects are a boring variant of the “effect of x on y.” Usually x is a chemical or a chemical formulation, like a salt or a detergent, and y is something that is counted, measured with a ruler, or even just qualitatively judged.
It is easy to see why students choose [this] paradigm since it incorporates many of the scientific research they are learning, like comparisons to a control and some kind of measurement. However, the students might be able to come up with something more interesting and educational to measure than the height of bean plants or which bleach is more effective.
So after several years of this tedium, I began suggesting to the teachers they talk to the students about other types of quantitative measurements that could make their projects more interesting. Here are a few examples.
Weight: Inexpensive scales with readouts in grams or even tenth-grams are now readily available at kitchen and bath stores or [online] for less than $20.
Glucose: Digital meters are available that are intended for use with blood, but they might be used to measure hydrolysis of a disaccharide, consumption of glucose by a microbial culture, or whatever liquid might release or consume glucose. The meters are available for $10–$30 and come with a limited number of test strips, but more can be bought at reasonable prices ($10–$25 per pack of 50).
Multipurpose soil tester: Digital soil test instruments are available to test for pH, moisture, and light. These can cost as little as $10–$12.
Temperature: Digital immersion and infrared thermometers are available with 0.1 °C precision. Students could use them for experiments in calorimetry, to standardize temperatures, or to measure reactions as a function of temperature. Costs are in the range of $7–$20.
Endoscopes and microscopes: Endoscopes using a USB connection could be used as a microscope and are available for less than $15. USB digital video microscopes are available for about $50.
I hope this list of suggestions will suggest other ideas and lead to better secondary school science projects.
John W. Cross
Rethinking open access and predation
There is little doubt that the present and future of scientific publishing lies in open access through different variations, although in most cases article publishing charges (APCs) are required, typically paid by the researchers’ grants or external funding institutions. As strange as it may be, the emergence of open access and predatory journals represents an intertwined phenomenon. Even worse, the use of illegitimate pirate sites has increased.
As senior scientists, we have the mission of warning our junior colleagues and students about predatory practices and how to select journals preserving integrity from submission to publication.
If one considers that many reputable journals charge more than $2,500 to cover the costs of publishing (in a few cases up to $5,000 per article), the obvious question is, Who can afford it? Because predatory journals are often targeting researchers from developing countries, they offer attractive and comparatively low APCs with respect to legitimate journals. But a recent analysis (Nature 2017, DOI: 10.1038/549023a) shows an opposite and worrying trend: More than half the papers captured by predatory journals have been authored in high- or upper-middle-income countries.
As senior scientists, we have the mission of warning our junior colleagues and students about predatory practices and how to select journals preserving integrity from submission to publication. Educational training is essential, but it could be no more than charlatanism if money is the ultimate goal. It is somewhat ironic that some editors, on rejecting a good manuscript in a well-established journal, usually recommend the authors resubmit it to a sister open access journal, often promising a refreshing perspective. Moreover, how can we convince taxpayers and funding agencies that publication of one fine paper in a leading journal has an exorbitant fee, when conversely, numerous apps on the internet cost less than $1.00?
It is obvious that high-quality and high-profile journals should be supported financially. APCs appear to be compulsory unless governments take serious decisions and incentives to fund legitimate journals while cutting off the malpractice of illegitimate ones. In any case, lower costs should not be regarded as a sign of disreputability.
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