First of all, there are important distinctions between research that genuinely advances the science and "research" whose function is chiefly pedagogical. If an undergraduate agrees to take on a significant role in a research project (i.e. one that merits authorship), they should know upfront that they are making a commitment to something more important than course credit. At the same time, investigators should make sure that, should a project get away from a student, they aren't "trapped" by that obligation. Establish clear objectives, set deadlines, and maintain ongoing dialog about the student's experience.
Another important distinction is betweenundergrads publishing research and young investigators publishing research they contributed to while they were undergrads. Undergraduates participate in research for all sorts of reasons, but only certain post-graduation paths really benefit from co-authorship. The most successful collaborations I've seen consist of lit review, data collection, and preliminary analysis during undergrad, followed by further analysis, manuscript writing, and submission after graduation. If a student is serious about pursuing a trajectory in the sciences following graduation, being able to focus on the project as it's coming together is important; if they choose another path when they graduate, doing so prior to putting together a complete draft doesn't leave their lab in the lurch.
If the (former) undergraduate is doing a fair portion of the writing, expect that they'll need very substantial editorial oversight and many rounds of revisions. Even when undergraduates write well in general, they very rarely have enough experience to produce good scientific writing. For a young scientist in transition between undergrad and grad school, this can be a formative experience, as well as a time to develop good writing habits and to squash bad ones. Take your role as the senior author seriously, so they're ready for the unmitigated harshness that is anonymous peer review.
Research co-written by undergrads (or recent graduates) is rarely great work, but it can nevertheless be the first work of someone who will become a great scientist. Expect such a collaboration to take more time than it would with an experienced co-author, and expect that you will need to step up as a mentor. Who knows? You might just be helping train up a long-term collaborator.
Just to make a counterpoint to Jon’s comment above, I think there are very few circumstances under which it's a bad idea for undergraduates to publish their research papers. While students are rarely fully involved in the writing and peer review process, I would argue that a student's science education is not complete until they've fully participated in all aspects of professional scientific culture. This holds true whether they intend to continue within science or in another professional field where analytical skills, priority setting, clarity of expression, and commitment to seeing work through to fruition are appreciated. The process of responding to peer review and publishing work that they have meaningfully participated in teaches skills not easily learned from textbooks, group lectures or traditional labs.
As you mention, there has been a proliferation of student research journals in recent years, often managed by other students and overseen by junior faculty. These are useful avenues but I think the rigorous peer review process afforded by professionally managed journals may be more beneficial to their development and result in more tangible outcomes. The open-access journals based on the University of California's eScholarship platform are also worth being aware of.
In my own field, a recent survey of British medical students from all years of study found that 14% had submitted manuscripts for publication, 60% of which had been accepted (Griffin & Hindocha 2011). However, this study found that only 11% were comfortable with the process of manuscript submission, highlighting the importance of assisting students with this process.
Apart from the time commitment and mentorship, finding funds to pay open-access journals’ article processing fees can become a key issue, especially if there is no formal funding stream for the students’ work. Still, even if there is no individual institutional membership in place, the UK’s JISC subscription subsidises submissions to many of the large open-access journals (SpringerOpen and BioMed Central), and others like the PLOS journals waive processing fees on a case-by-case basis.
Unfortunately the Committee on Publication Ethics's casebook lists an unfortunate number of cases of poor publication practices by students' supervisors (here's an example). Alongside early training in good research practices, guidance on publication ethics is important.
Thank you for your helpful reply. I will have to look up Griffin and Hindocha 2011, but that COPE case study was an interesting read. I started following a similar strategy as Corina (see below) adopted, and it has been very successful so far. I tend to tell my students from the beginning of a project that I aim for publishable standards, and they usually become quite enthusiastic.
Although I agree with your comment on the student type journals, I feel that the cost of (OA) publishing is a severely limiting factor for most undergraduates. I don't have a budget from which I can finance their work, so this makes things slightly more difficult...- Nieky van Veggel •
I let the motivation come from my undergraduate students in terms of whether they want to get involved in an aspect of my research that would warrant their co-authorship. However, I do try to inspire such motivation. First, I engage them with my research as a research assistant (for credit or as a volunteer) and they usually become very interested in particular topics. Then I entice them to join a particular project that I am planning on supervising/conducting and publishing (thus taking care of the quality of the science) by sharing the variety of projects that are coming up. If they take a particular interest in one of these projects and I do not have the time to take the lead on collecting the data, I offer them first-authorship if they take a lead role in arranging some of the logistics, collecting the data, and taking a stab at analysis and writing the paper. Some students jump at the opportunity, while others are either not yet clear about what they want to do or are not inspired enough by my available projects. In the latter case, I often include my undergraduate research assistants as co-authors if they helped collect a substantial amount of the data. In these cases, they get to see the whole process of how science gets published, which they find enlightening, will help them with their future publications, and may inspire them to remain in or join academia.
In sum, I control the quality of the research by giving them publishable projects or co-designing projects with them if they are so motivated. Otherwise they can become a co-author by contributing a substantial amount of data collection to my existing projects and this process can motivate them to become more involved in science.
Thank you for your comment. I agree with you and am happy to say that I adopt a similar strategy, with good results so far. If only the cost of publishing would be lower... I prefer to publish OA, but cost is a limiting factor due to limited (read: none) budget, hency my great appreciation of the likes of PeerJ!- Nieky van Veggel •
The majority of the time, I don't think it's worth undergraduates going through the formal publication process. It takes time, and unless you're considering a career within academia, probably not really worth it.
I'd strongly recommend alternatives to the formal publishing route. PeerJ's pre-print serve works, as well as the arXiv, biorxiv, and Figshare for data. Uploading manuscripts, data, images, posters, whatever, to these will create a citeable item for them, generated in next to no time. The information is out there, and I think for the majority of undergraduates and their research, that is the most important thing.
With respect to quality, there is the problem that unpublished undergraduate-level research won't be taken as 'proper' or credible research. This would be the one advantage of publishing, OA or not, but my response to this is that every time an academic reads an article, unpublished or not, it's peer reviewed when we incorporate it into our research. It's an independent judgment to make.
So with all this in mind, I'd recommend not publishing in the traditional way, unless they're seriously considering a PhD or higher-level academic career. And if they are, I'd just direct them to PLoS One, which has a high impact factor (we all hate it, but still important career-wise), and you can get a fee waiver for. Or just ask your librarian if they'll cover APCs. Or if they have a deal with PeerJ! :)
Good stuff, Jon. Just a clarification that undergrads publish for free in PeerJ, and preprints are always free.- Jason Hoyt •
Completely agree except for one point. I don't think the impact factor of a paper published as you are undergrad might have any influence on later career.- Antoine Taly •
Undergrads publish for free? Good news, as I have a paper that needs publishing at some point to which a UG research assistant significantly contributed. Also, said student is staying on for MRes and possibly PhD, so would be beneficial for them. Will have to consider this when manuscript is ready.- Nieky van Veggel •
I am an undergrad student and speaking from experience, I find the most difficult aspect of publishing is to find a publisher that has very low to no article processing charges.
After reading on several forums and surfing the net four hours PeerJ was the only free publishing journal I found.
The point I am trying to make is that many UG's are engaged in research and are interested in publishing, but a major roadblock is finding the proper resources to do so.
My advice would be to provide them with all the details:
- Explain what open access journals are
-Discuss article processing charges (APC's)
- Provide your students with a list of journals that have no or low APC's
-Discuss waivers and how students have the opportunity to publish an article without having to pay a heft sum of money
Just my thoughts,
If an undergrad is making or has made a substantial effort on a project, then I think the mentor has a responsibility to help push them over the line. Given the lack of writing experience of undergrads (particularly US undergrads) that essentially means either re-writing the entire piece or writing it and getting the undergrad students to review the manuscript and try improve it. At undergrad, particularly junior college level, anything less sets most students up for disappointment. That is unforgivable for a mentor to do; nothing succeeds like success and giving an undergrad that first taste of success will set some up for life as researchers. At the very least they will hopefully become citizens supportive of research and government support of research.- Paul Walsh •
As I know, journals like 'Journal of Neuroscience' require high APC, there are also many journals without any fee required in the neuroimaging filed. I think in your research field, that would be the same. You just need to search for them. Of course, obtaining funding sources would be better to solve any issue related to money.- Xiang-Zhen Kong •
I believe undergrads can do strong research on important and interesting topics, but they often need a lot of help. Assuming the original poster is asking about the undergrad's own research - I think it's important that (any) student really takes ownership of the project and sees it as their own. Undergrads are often busy and seek varying levels of commitment to any enterprise; ones who are invested in the project are more likely to see it through. Second, I like to have them do the talking on their projects at conferences - nothing makes them feel more on the spot (and therefore motivated to slog through data collection, analysis, and thinking more deeply about the results) than the utter fear of being in front of a crowd or being grilled by someone in front of a poster. When you can get them into such situations, even before "publishing" the work, you help them out of the impostor syndrome / fear and you educate them as to how the work is best communicated. To encourage this stage, I find it helpful if I can find a local student-friendly conference in the topic area for them to present to. The rush of finding themselves at a conference (and with other "real" scientists too) helps them see how far you've brought them and helps them connect and solidify if they want a future research career. Those that do are more than willing to help, or better still, drive in pushing out the final paper. In this last bit, I've found it hard to sustain enthusiam in the light of withering peer reviews, but it can be done. On work that undergrads truly owned, it is important that they be first author (although I find that in some cases they prefer to have someone be otherwise corresponding - the debt we force undergrads into these days means many have to work, and normal business hours too, and so cannot be on the email hook). It is very gratifying for some researchers to be able to point to the team at the end of it all, and say these guys were sophomores or juniors when the work was done. Unfortunately, some senior professors or journal pathways take so long that by the time we reach that moment the students are moved on to grad school / dental school / med school or are working off their student loans. I think journals like PeerJ are a great encouragement for undergrads wishing to publish. Open access models with timely and open review hopefully will speed this step up and can lower the financial barrier (although PLOS One costs an arm and a leg, especially for un-funded undergrad-driven projects that one may have undertaken as side projects) . Encouraging undergrads to publish is a worthy goal; it takes good undergrads and good leadership - the mindset must be one that they are scientists (albeit inexperienced ones), but with good leadership we can reach somewhere we did not think we could reach. People who approach working with undergrads with the opinion that they are kids, or minions to be used solely in furtherance of the mentors goals, will likely not succeed. Perhaps a lot of this translates to how to encourage graduate students to publish their research too.
Feedback and insights into the peer review process. Also, generating publishing research. Obvious I know :) but not trivial. I am working hard to ensure that all activities the undergraduates I interact with in teaching and research generate useable work for others. I have not found this easy given time constraints and the evaluation system of the university. Consequently, I am assigning less work in upper year courses but providing more time and increasing the standards. Also, team work with sets of UGs is a good solution.
Cheers all for the helpful comments. There are some good UG research journals (e.g. Bioscience Horizons) available in the UK (found them after talking to lots of people) and obviously PeerJ is a sustainable and attractive option, which is open access and therefore offers good opportunities for discussion about peer review models, publication ethics etc.