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Science Tuesday: In praise of open access and nosy parents

Written on March 11, 2008

Today at A Free Man: The Real Deal

One of the several things that I will miss about working in academia is unfettered access to academic journals. The cliche of academics locked away in ivory towers is reinforced by the unfortunate fact that many, and certainly the most important, of our journals are protected by a heavy subscription fee. An annual personal subscription to Nature, for example, is $200 (US). It’s kind of a hefty cover charge to get into the club. Effectively this prevents the general public from participating much in the scientific discussion – particularly unhelpful for those lay people that are slightly suspicious of scientists and their work.

To counter this ivory tower attitude, groups of scientists got together in 2002 and 2003 to push for open access to scientific literature online. Currently about 10 percent of academic journals offer free access to all of their contents. The primary criticism of open access journals is financial. Because they don’t receive subscription fees, OA journals charge a higher publication fee to researchers. This is kind of a bogus argument as nearly all journals, OA or subscription, use a pay to play policy.

The other problem with OA journals is that they don’t get the hottest research. If you’re a scientist and you put together some groundbreaking work – you go to Nature or Science or the high impact journal in your field. Open Access journals may not get the “sexiest” science, but they often publish thought provoking, beautifully designed or controversial papers. One of my favorite Science Tuesday posts was from a PLoS journal discussing the origins of syphilis – great stuff.

All this is leading up to the announcement that Science Tuesday, from now on, will feature only Open Access research. Unfortunately this is due more to necessity than a grand moral stand, but it’s all about the ends. This inevitably means that I’ll miss out on a lot of the hot news science, but the traditional media outlets cover that anyway. So come here looking for the quirky, clever and subtle science that often gets missed by the big guys.

In that vein, I have an odd one for the first Open Access Science Tuesday. BioMed Central is an OA publisher with nearly 200 journals in their stables. Earlier this week they featured an strange little study coming out of the University of Maryland that caught my eye. A research group led by Amelia Arria report in Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention & Policy results that may suggest that nosy parents, those that pay attention to what their kids are doing, are better at keeping their kids out of trouble with the bottle in college.

Yes, I can hear the “no, duh” chorus. But before we jettison this into the Journal of the Bloody Obvious, let’s take a look at what Arria’s group actually did. The Maryland researchers began this study with the hypothesis that parental monitoring in high school can have a long term protective effect on drinking once the kids leave home. To address this question Arria’s group surveyed over 1,200 students both the summer before they went to university and during the first year at university. They were asked not only about their drinking habits but also relationship with their parents.

There is a lot of statistical wrangling in this study, as the researchers are trying to eliminate variables other than parental monitoring in high school. For example, white students drink more than black students, men drink more than women and, surprise, members of fraternities and sororities drink more than non-members. Ground breaking research in College Park. After all the statistical manipulation Arria’s group find that the only real relationship between parental monitoring and college drinking is that those who drank less in high school due to parental discouragement continue to drink less in college. Once the variation in high school drinking was ignored there was no significant long-term parental effect. Take home message from the data as I see it – once kids leave the nest your influence as a parent wanes kind of quickly.

Arria, however, sees it differently. One of the things that really amused me about this paper was its built in disclaimers. Anyone who’s ever published a scientific paper knows that to avoid getting destroyed by reviewers you have to include little caveats – statements of uncertainty about your concusions, wiggle room if you will. Arria’s group has a couple of pages of these including (but not limited to) the recognition that college students are a pretty limited sample set, college drinking takes on many manifestations (binge versus daily), the measure of paternal monitoring is based on the children’s impression and that the study only looks at one time point in adolescence. A big one that they left out is that people lie, particularly those with substance abuse problems and poor relationships with their parents. Despite all these caveats and their own results, the researchers still conclude that parental monitoring is a key to curbing high-risk drinking in college. Probably true, but kind of not supported by your own data. Open Access Science Tuesday is going to be fun!

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Helicopter Parents

Filed in: Family,Science.


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  1. Comment by Jessica K:

    I can hear Arizaphale pulling out her flaming sword! She is sure to like this one.
    Imho, parents do what they feel is right, but ultimately the kids do what they want.

    Jessica K’s last blog post..In Case You Were Wondering…

    March 11, 2008 @ 4:28 pm
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  3. Comment by Matthew:

    I’m all for open access. It is the very nature of science.

    I agree that the financial reasons are a bit bogus. Why, because I think they’ll still keep a majority of their subscribers anyway. Even if they don’t keep them, they’ll make money in the long run by not having to buy as much of the fancy glossy paper and by increasing advertisement fee on their webpages?

    March 11, 2008 @ 6:43 pm
  4. Comment by Jason:

    I agree with the open access idea, but I’ve often wondered if open access has to mean lesser science. The open access movement is still rather new. Do you think that the open access journals simply need more time to build up a reputation at the level of Science or Nature? It’s something I’ve wondered. Regardless, I’d be perfectly happy to be accepted for publication in PLoS.

    Your point about open-access also brings up another point for discussion. What do you think about the NIH’s recent open-access policy for research performed using NIH funding? An interesting idea to some degree, but to me it seems like they place the blame for closed-access on the shoulders of the researchers, and not the journals themselves. I think many scientists would like to publish in open-access journals, but will likely do what’s best for their careers and publish in the best journal possible. I wonder if that means that publications might be rejected by the big journals simply because they have an open-access requirement?

    You’ve got a bunch of academic fans of your blog. I’m sure you could still get access to certain journal articles of interest. Of course, I can’t condone such activity (please be nice to me, big publishing firm), but I’m sure you could find a way to make it work.

    March 12, 2008 @ 5:14 am
  5. Comment by arizaphale:

    Have only just had a chance to read this properly. (ie: suddenly had work to do which needed avoiding)
    I agree that this study sounds like it has more holes in its fabric of logic than a cellular blanket.
    How about this take…
    Kids do not curb drinking because parents ‘monitor them’ (well, not for long anyway) but rather, the kids with nosy (read ‘interested’) parents are more likely to have good self esteem and are therefore less likely to exhibit destructive patterns of behaviour.
    As Jess says, ultimately, kids do what they want and all you can hope is that you have prepared them well enough to cope with the freedoms and responsibilities of adulthood. There is a big difference between parental monitoring which is controlling and restrictive and firm boundaries which are varied, age appropriately with time. I must read the actual article now…or perhaps I had better get on with the work I am avoiding?

    arizaphale’s last blog post..Heat Continues

    March 13, 2008 @ 3:37 pm
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