Monthly Archives: February 2016

Newsflash: Homework Improves Grades!

One of my daughters recently related a story to me wherein one of her high school classmates asked her why, when she already has straight-As, was she working so hard to finish all her homework and study for her tests? Uh, yeah, great question, kid. Not like there’s any potential correlation between those two things, huh?

Seriously, when did we lose sight of the importance of actually working through material in order to gain a better understanding of it? As if this had ever been a question, a couple of professors at one of North Carolina’s lesser-known public universities, East Carolina University, decided to settle this issue scientifically, once and for all. The professors designed a clever study of introductory economics courses at the university level, comparing courses where students were required or not required to do assigned homework sets (same course, professor, material, and students did not know ahead of time whether homework would be required).

Shockingly, the results proved what your mom always told you—doing your homework dramatically improves your likelihood of success in a difficult course. Yes, you heard it here first: requiring students to do homework results in “higher retention rates, higher test scores (5 to 6 percent), more good grades (Bs), and lower failure rates.” Am I the only one here with the cocked brow waiting for the punchline? I hope not. Thank you, ECU, for clearing that one up.

If you’d like to read more about it, the actual study can be found here, and a layperson’s summary is here.

Scientific Research Goes Rogue

ThiefOne woman’s plan to free all of science. If you weren’t aware, I’m a digithead in my non-novel-writing life. I spent a decade cranking out statistics for the pharmaceutical industry and have since run numbers for a bunch of other companies. Whatever I’ve done, there was always an element of scientific research in it, and like everyone else who uses journal articles, I’ve always been appalled at the cost to read published research. Typically, access to scientific journals runs $30-$50 per single article viewed as a PDF (usually 5-20 pages). If you are doing serious research, you may need to read dozens or even hundreds of these articles to find what you’re looking for, so these $30 dings really add up. Enter Sci-Hub, the brainchild of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan. Ms. Elbakyan was fed up with her inability to complete any reasonable scientific research due to these high prices, so she created a site where researchers could access virtually any published science for free. The site provides the articles by “borrowing” university credentials or otherwise illegally bypassing journal pay-walls, giving millions of users access to science they could never otherwise afford.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those “all information and creative products should be free” types. Clearly. I write books, and I sell them. For cash money. That’s how I get paid for my efforts. But I write fiction—pure entertainment—and provide it for a very reasonable price. A latte at Starbucks costs more. And I receive no other remuneration for what I do. Scientific researchers, on the other hand, are already paid. Most of them work either on salaries or grants from universities or corporations. And that’s the only way they’re paid for the work they produce—understand, they do not get paid when people read the articles they wrote in an online (or offline) journal. In fact, more and more, journals are charging researchers to edit and publish their articles, and then they charge you to read the finished product. And while we’re at it, let’s remember that some of that research is paid for by public funds. You paid for the research study with your tax dollars, and then you have to pay again to read how the study turned out. In other words, scientific journal publishing is like giving a private company exclusive rights to the Declaration of Independence and charging people $35 to read it.

Ms. Elbakyan has been heralded as the Robin Hood of the digital scientific age. Is she? Is it ethical, as she claims, to essentially steal these articles and make them freely available to all? Probably not, but neither is it ethical for private corporations to control the flow of publicly-funded research. Yes, they do provide a valuable service: they read, edit, and evaluate scientific research, and lay it out in an easily accessible format online. That service is probably worth a few bucks per read, and, as those companies are now finding out, when you dramatically overcharge for a service, you can expect to be challenged—either by innovative competitors or by rampant theft. The music industry learned this lesson first, and the traditional book publishing industry is learning it now. Scientific journals have a choice: they can make content available at a reasonable price or expect to be out of business in five years.

Read more at: Big Think: Meet the Robin Hood of Science.