point of view
Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2023 (Volume 52, Issue 5)
By Shamel Basaria, Taylor S. Ginieczki, Shloka V. Janapaty, Rohan Nigam, and Davis H. Smith
Participating in undergraduate research shows students how to engage with the scholarly community, formulate original research questions, and conduct research ethically. Several generations of faculty mentor students in undergraduate research laboratories and provide scaffolding for this transitional process, and students often publish their work in undergraduate research journals (URJs). There are more than 40 such journals in the United States, 17 of which are represented by the National Undergraduate Consortium for Science Journalism (NUCSJ). Although the merits of URJs have been disputed, we believe they can be high-impact organizations, contingent on effective institutional framing, internal organization, and campus support. Based on NUCSJ’s proximity to the challenges URJs face and experience in working with these journals, we propose several guiding principles that will help journals fully realize their unique value to undergraduates, with outcomes significantly better than those produced by current approaches. First, we briefly identify the scope and aims of URJs, with the discussion limited to those refereed by and for undergraduates. Then, we argue that every journal should aim to maximize learning objectives and suggest that institutionalization is key to a journal’s long-term success.
First and foremost, undergraduate journals should be treated as distinct from professional, peer-reviewed journals. Professional journals publish specialized research for a targeted audience. By contrast, the main purpose of a URJ is to educate undergraduates about reading and writing scientific literature across several disciplines. For student authors, URJs build the bridge between university term papers and professional manuscripts (Sun et al., 2020). They introduce undergraduates to the peer-review and publishing processes and teach them how to write manuscripts that will be evaluated for their scientific rigor. Students also participate in URJs’ editorial teams, which is often their first foray into academic scientific reading and peer review. Faculty mentors also teach editorial reviewers how to conduct double-blind review processes, read complex manuscripts, and evaluate the scope of a study. Most importantly, students learn to identify exceptional research, a foundational and critical skill for future academics in any discipline.
Every URJ should aim to maximize learning objectives, both for its editorial staff and its authors. This can be a challenging task; nearly two thirds of surveyed NUCSJ member journals report a lack of institutional support for editorial staff and difficulties with training students in the review process. Moreover, undergraduates often struggle to adequately evaluate peer work and provide useful technical feedback (Gilbert, 2004; Jungck et al., 2004). To better support student reviewers and improve publication quality, we propose the establishment of a closer relationship between graduate mentors and undergraduate editors. At several of NUCSJ’s most successful member journals, graduate students have helped prepare undergraduate reviewers to read papers in their respective fields. This mentorship involves discussing published academic papers, differentiating between content and convention errors, and training students in special topic areas.
Alternatively (or additionally), we recommend that URJs organize a monthly journal club meeting. The most successful implementations are led by a professor and showcase an appropriate range of content. During these meetings, students should also be encouraged to read a selection of poorly written papers, as doing so often elucidates best practices. Specific topics of discussion may include the following questions: What were the aims and scope of this paper? Do the conclusions follow from the data? Who is the audience? Were the findings effectively communicated? Questions of research novelty, interdisciplinarity, and ethics may also be of interest to several student groups.
Finally, during the publication process, we urge URJs to adopt a collaborative review process. Several editors should individually review the same paper. This phase of revision should be followed by collaborative deliberation that both maximizes learning objectives and ensures robust editorial decisions. When URJs struggle to collaborate internally, the group’s collective decision is swayed by individual editorial decisions. A lack of collaboration also restricts opportunities for team-building and constructive learning.
Both Fox et al. (2017) and Aboshady and Gouda (2016) have noted that URJs suffer from low readership and are not usually indexed to be searchable, both of which impede their ability to disseminate findings. Polled NUCSJ member journals reported receiving between five and 120 submissions per cycle. Annual readership ranges from 100 to 880 unique views online. Better institutionalization and guidance from other student groups can help URJs become more universally successful.
Another key challenge for several NUCSJ journals has been developing a campus presence; many students simply do not know that they can publish research in a URJ while they are still undergraduates. Faculty play a critical role in educating students about major rewards associated with the peer review process—from simply experiencing it as the lifeblood process of generating new knowledge in academia to possibly getting their work published before even attending graduate school.. Furthermore, to recruit editorial staff and maintain high standards of review from year to year, we urge faculty advisors to become actively involved in their URJ. Advisor support and student awareness embed URJs into campus culture, enabling journals to remain active long after student leaders graduate and cycle out.
Successful URJs in the long-term are institutionalized beyond current student leadership. Several NUCSJ member journals have also been integrated into introductory science courses, which provides them with the visibility necessary to recruit new editors and solicit submissions. URJs’ accessibility further improves when they are registered with their university library, indexed on Google Scholar, or supported by large, “crawlable” databases such as Open Journal Systems (OJS) or dSPACE (Delabays & Tyloo, 2022).
In addition to having a presence—physical or digital—in university libraries, journals can establish themselves by linking with research initiatives that are part of the larger university, such as senior thesis courses and summer programs. URJs can also create large publicity committees and maintain a presence at undergraduate research fairs to ensure visibility with the student body. Ultimately, the key to gaining traction is to have significant support from the university administration, helping journals become visible to students from the moment students step foot on campus.
Long-term URJ success hinges on robust institutionalization. Faculty, graduate-student mentors, and administrative staff have a unique opportunity to support journals as high-impact student groups and junior academic publishing entities. If current approaches can be improved to maximize learning objectives, URJs can bring tremendous utility to the undergraduate research community and the scholars it will produce.
Shamel Basaria (email@example.com) is a third-year undergraduate student in neuroscience, and Rohan Nigam (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a third-year undergraduate student in neuroscience and medicine, health, and society, both at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Taylor S. Ginieczki (email@example.com) is a recent graduate of the University of Oregon and a political science researcher at Quality Matters in Dublin, Ireland. Shloka V. Janapaty (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a third-year undergraduate student in applied physics and applied mathematics, and Davis H. Smith (email@example.com) is a second-year undergraduate student in biochemistry, both at Columbia University in New York. All authors sat on the 2022–23 executive board for the National Undergraduate Consortium for Science Journalism.
Aboshady, O. A., & Gouda, M. A. (2016). Pros and cons of student journals. Perspectives on Medical Education, 5(1), 63–64. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40037-015-0244-2
Delabays, R., & Tyloo, M. (2022). Heavy-tailed distribution of the number of papers within scientific journals. Quantitative Science Studies, 3(3), 776–792. https://doi.org/10.1162/qss_a_00201
Fox, G. A., Kuster, E. L., & Fox, A. K. (2017). The importance of scientific publishing: Teaching an undergraduate how to swim the entire length of the pool. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 160(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1936-704X.2017.03236.x
Gilbert, S. F. (2004). Points of view: Should students be encouraged to publish their research in student-run publications? A case against undergraduate-only journal publications. Cell Biology Education, 3(1), 22–23. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.04-01-0023
Jungck, J. R., Harris, M., Mercuri, R., & Tusin, J. (2004). Points of view: Should students be encouraged to publish their research in student-run publications? Undergraduates: Do research, publish! Cell Biology Education, 3(1), 24–26. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.04-01-0022
Sun, E., Huggins, J. A., Brown, K. L., Boutin, R. C., Ramey, W. D., Graves, M. L., & Oliver, D. C. (2020). Development of a peer-reviewed open-access undergraduate research journal. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 21(2), 40–47. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v21i2.2151
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