Free scholarly material is becoming more available on the internet, and a new web site offers hundreds of free, peer-reviewed articles to college students, including those with non-scientific academic focuses.
Scitable, a site introduced by the well-respected Nature Publishing Group, has more than 200 articles that concentrate mostly on genetics. The submissions are crafted in a way that is applicable to college students, not just scientists and academicians.
Scitable’s January launch came as elite universities across the United States are embracing open-access formats–making research articles available for free online. This marks an abrupt departure from the traditional model of printing research articles in academic journals, which can cost campuses as much as $20,000 annually, open-access experts say. As university budgets stagnate, journal subscriptions are proving unaffordable for even the richest American campuses.
Clare O’Connor, an associate professor in Boston College’s Biology Department, said Scitable articles could be an asset for professors looking to supplement their courses with material that doesn’t come with the skyrocketing costs of textbooks.
O’Connor said she will use Scitable in her undergraduate genetics course next fall, in part because the site’s articles appeal to students who don’t major in scientific fields.
"I know not every [student] is really interested in becoming a scientist," she said. "But I believe it’s important to have a working knowledge of genetics."
Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director of Nature Education, said Scitable’s archive of articles could make genetics more appealing to college students.
"Students find science very intimidating in the way it’s presented to them," Savkar said, adding that about 40 percent of college students who start their academic careers in a science major switch fields before they graduate. "Science is difficult, and it is rigorous … and we want to make it more clear without dumbing it down."
With President Obama committed to funding university-based scientific research–Yale University received $3.9 million on April 8 for research on human embryonic stem-cell research, for example–Savkar said it will be important to shepherd the next generation of scientists from the lecture hall to the laboratory.
"But first, they need to start to get a deeper sense of how hypotheses are formed and how the empirical process of science actually works," he said. "We’re trying to expose students as early as possible."
One Scitable article written by O’Connor reviews chromosomes’ role in heredity, the ways scientists analyze chromosomes, and chromosome-related abnormalities and diseases. Once a student is finished reading the article, he or she can scroll down and see more articles related to the same topic, eliminating the complex searching process prevalent on some academic web sites.
O’Connor said college science textbooks often fail to show how science is relevant to everyday life, whereas many Scitable entries strive to help students understand complicated research methods and evolutionary findings in genetics. Experts agree that web sites with peer-reviewed material are a preferred study option over sometimes unreliable sites like Wikipedia, which has become a student favorite on campuses nationwide. In a March 2007 study conducted by Nature, about 80 percent of students said they used Wikipedia more than once a day to study for science classes, Savkar said.
"Students go to Wikipedia too much," he said. "Faculty are very concerned about these sites, because they don’t regard them as authoritative. There’s a need for web-based resources that students take to that are authoritative."
Savkar said Scitable will expand in the coming year to include material from the life sciences–including cell biology and molecular biology–and will include advertising so the site can become "self sustainable."
For now, O’Connor said, Scitable articles could serve as a supplement for professors looking to include resources that aren’t available in textbooks. But if universities and academic journals continue to make material available for free online, O’Connor said, college courses could be run without traditional textbooks.
"I think it’s conceivable that someone might be able to run a course on Scitable alone someday," she said.
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