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Undergraduates: Publish and be Damned?

Joe Grimwade, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick


Now that I have graduated from the University of Warwick, and am about to take my leave of the Reinvention team, I have taken some time to reflect upon the practice of publishing undergraduate research. I stress that I am in no way questioning the worth of doing research as an undergraduate: the flow of articles confirming the value of engaging in inquiry-based learning to both undergraduates and their mentors has, over the past several years, become a steadfast stream (summary in Caprio, 2014: 146–7; see also Ziegler, 2015), and is fully supported by my personal experience. However, the purpose of taking the next step, that of publishing in undergraduate-only journals, has been scrutinised less often.

The benefits of such a publishing model are not unquestionable. They were attacked in an opinion piece by Gilbert in 2004, who, although advocating against undergraduate publication in the sciences, made his arguments generally applicable (Gilbert, 2004: 22–23). In light of how the undergraduate publishing model has developed over the last decade, several of his concerns have proven unfounded. One was that the task of establishing and maintaining an undergraduate research journal could prove stressful for academic staff. Rather, if implemented correctly, we have seen that the practice of engaging with undergraduates as researchers has enabled academics to relate their work to their students more effectively, while the demands on staff of keeping a journal alive over multiple cohorts have been mitigated by the establishment of infrastructure dedicated to student research (in Reinvention's case, the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning; these approaches are advocated as best practice by Spronken-Smith et al., 2013: 105–18).

A second related issue, that of increased stress on students, has also proven baseless. Gilbert was concerned that publication would become a requirement for progression on to postgraduate courses, creating undue pressure to publish before graduation. In reality, publication of work in a journal is still constrained to a relatively small number of undergraduates (Walkington et al., 2013: 24–31). During my recent personal experience of applying for postgraduate courses, I found that academics dealing with admissions are much more interested in judging samples of a student's written work based on its content, rather than on whether it has been published or not. The process of carrying an article through to publication has the potential to equip undergraduates with graduate-level skills (Caprio, 2014: 147–49); this is naturally demanding, and can be a stressful experience. Mitigation of that stress is, however, the primary strength of undergraduate-only journals: it is the job of Reinvention's editorial team to help the author through the challenges of receiving criticism and implementing revisions; to explain the publishing process for authors who have never encountered it before; and to provide knowledge that traditional journals assume.

Attempting formal publication as an undergraduate is certainly not suitable for everyone undertaking a degree. The results of undergraduate research can be disseminated in a variety of ways: from the delivery of a conference paper, to the presentation of a poster, to the composition of a blog post (Spronken-Smith et al., 2013: 105–18); similarly, the classification of inquiry-based learning encompasses a broad range of activities, including apprenticeships and industry projects, which do not necessarily lend themselves to the production of traditional journal articles (Zimbardi and Myatt, 2014: 233–50). Thus, in response to Gilbert's question concerning who benefits from the existence of undergraduate-only journals, it is admittedly not the whole undergraduate cohort, although a rough parallel might be the existence of elite university sports teams, which do not benefit the whole of the student population, but only those who participate. Although participation in undergraduate publishing cannot be universal, it does not follow that it should not exist: if students are to take a genuinely active role in their learning as researchers, the opportunity to publish, as one potential outcome, authenticates the research environment and represents the completion of the research cycle.

The question of who benefits also leads us to address the value of undergraduate-authored articles to the wider academic community. Gilbert voices the dominant presumption: that papers appearing in undergraduate journals are unlikely to be read by anyone outside of the institution in which they are produced, and therefore possess little worth. Here, there is a dearth of data. While the positive impact on students of engaging with the publishing process are cited repeatedly, there is little information on the afterlife of their articles, and what exists is largely anecdotal. In the case of Reinvention, Gilbert's supposition is objectively untrue: I am regularly contacted by individual academics and students from across the world, stating that they have found an article which has appeared in the journal useful for their own research. Nevertheless, the widespread absence of indexing in undergraduate publishing makes such evidence difficult to quantify (a limited attempt is made in Walkington et al., 2013: 27). I would like to see Reinvention, with the metrics it collects, play a role in filling this data gap.

Closely related to the worth of undergraduate-authored articles is the issue of quality: high standards are essential to ensure that the undergraduate publishing industry does not come to be populated by Gilbert's caricature 'vanity journals'. This is why I am against one of the suggestions made by Walkington and Jenkins for increasing participation in dissemination of undergraduate research: that publication could be made a compulsory part of a course (Walkington and Jenkins, 2013). Sometimes research does not lead to publication; some research takes longer than expected to reach a publishable standard; some research never achieves that standard; and these are all important lessons for aspiring academics. Doubts concerning the ability of an undergraduate editorial board to make the ultimate decision about any contribution that an article makes to a given field are removed when a model such as Reinvention's is adopted, and expert peer reviewers are sought for each manuscript individually. This rigorous process, working in tandem with our initial screening system, which ensures a base level of quality, results in many rejections: my rough calculations estimate that Reinvention's rejection rate under my editorship has hovered around 85 per cent, comparable to many major journals (although there are numerous questions concerning rejection rates as an indicator of quality; see Rocha da Silva, 2015). An undergraduate-only journal, staffed by undergraduates who are willing to explain the reasons behind rejection, is one of the best environments for a first-time author to learn and engage with academia at large.

Ultimately, I do not think that the perception of undergraduate-only journals as somehow lesser than 'real' journals, unwarranted though it may be, is going to disappear entirely any time soon. Just as there are both good and bad research journals, so too are there good and bad journals of undergraduate research. For this reason, as I hand on the editorship of Reinvention, I am keenly aware of the editorial team's responsibility to preserve our journal as a showcase for the most academically rigorous work produced by undergraduates. All of the articles appearing in Volume 9 Issue 2, I am happy to say, fall squarely into this category.

In the first of two medical articles in this issue, memorably entitled 'That Girl's Got Guts: Relationships and Everyday Life for Women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)', Lauren White presents the revealing findings of a series of semi-structured interviews conducted with women living with IBS. By setting her study within the broader context of societal aversion and prejudice towards the condition, she examines how symptom management is influenced by gendered conceptions of femininity.

Secondly, in their article 'The Correlation Threshold as a Strategy for Gene Filtering, with Application to Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Breast Cancer Microarray Data', Samuel Edward Jackson, Jochen Einbeck, Adetayo Kasim and Willem Talloen address the complex issue of when the presence of disease-associated gene signatures can be of greatest benefit to sample diagnosis. In a medical environment where resources are limited, their investigation has implications beyond their chosen examples of IBS and breast cancer.

Jia Jun Fung and Yau Yan Lim introduce the fascinating species Gynura procumbens, an evergreen native to south-east Asia, in their article 'Effect of Air- and Oven-Drying on the Activity of Polyphenol Oxidases and Peroxidases in the Leaves of Gynura procumbens'. This plant is well known for is many medicinal properties, although effective techniques for drying and preservation have so far prevented its commercial exploitation. The careful experimentation in this study brings the potential benefits of that possibility closer.

The exposure of children to risky environments during playtime is a controversial topic, and a fresh angle is offered by Claire Saunders in her article 'An Exploration into the Facilitation of Risky Play Indoors'. She challenges the notion that risky play can only take place outside, developing a discussion of what constitutes appropriate 'risky play' based on an in-depth study of a Norwegian kindergarten.

In her article 'Safe to Eat? Dealing with Food Safety after the Fukushima Disaster', Giulia Nicolini highlights persistent concerns over food produced in the affected region; specifically, the worries that Japanese mothers face when deciding what to feed their children. Through interviews and analysis of responses, she considers how they negotiate the risks.

William J. Gildea provides food for thought in his article 'The Proper Meaning of Private Property: A Social View'. In the current climate, when both inhabited and uninhabited areas of the globe, and the valuable resources they contain, are hotly contested, he asks us to reassess our perceptions of property rights, and questions the moral frameworks around which they have been constructed.

Mass migration across Europe is a perennial phenomenon, and in her article 'Postkolonialismus im Spiegel: Testing Postcolonial Theory on Turkish-German Diasporic Literature', Rosie Preston considers the experience of Turkish migration into Germany in the mid-twentieth century, as reflected in two modern German-language novels by the authors Emine Özdamar, who moved from Turkey to Germany, and Selim Özdogan, who was born in Germany to a Turkish family. Her insightful analysis complicates the postcolonial paradigm and highlights the individualism of diasporic experience.

This issue of Reinvention also contains reviews of two books, each of which has been read by one undergraduate and one professional academic. Genevieve Trinh and Dr Craig Robertson provide their thoughts on Popular Music and the Politics of Novelty (Dale, 2016), a volume which sets out to encourage us to reassess our perceptions of the relationship between modern pop music and political engagement, asking whether, in the absence of continual innovation, music's groove necessarily becomes a rut. Finally, Karmila Thomas and Dr Joshua Specht review the less musical, but equally political, The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency (Fitzpatrick, 2016). With the US elections imminent, Hillary Clinton has the chance to become the first woman to shatter that 'highest glass ceiling' and to win the presidency – meaning that Fitzpatrick's long view of previous attempts by women to reach the Oval Office could not be more relevant.

Since the last issue of Reinvention was published, we have said farewell to one of our Monash assistant editors, Laura Riccadi. I was especially sorry to see Laura depart, because her incisive input and scrupulous work ethic were of immense value to the team. We wish her the very best for the future, both inside and outside of academia.

I have also moved on, and have just begun studying for my MPhil in Classics at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. The publication of this issue therefore marks the end of my involvement with Reinvention. Both as an assistant editor and as editor, I have been diverted, stimulated, challenged and rewarded in equal measure. I have learned a frightening amount, and hope that I in turn have been able to pass on at least some of that knowledge. Most satisfyingly, I have been given the opportunity to work with and lead a fantastic team of interesting, passionate undergraduates from Warwick and Monash. I can only thank them for the fun.

Reinvention's new editor is James Young, who is currently reading History at the University of Warwick. I have worked closely with him for the past few months, and know that there are exciting times ahead of the journal, with special issues and further international collaboration on the horizon. James is ideally suited to the job of ensuring that Reinvention makes the most of these opportunities while upholding its reputation for excellence in publishing undergraduate research. I sincerely hope that he enjoys his time in the role as much as I have done.


References

Caprio, M. J. (2014), 'Student publishing: future scholars as change agents', in OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, 30 (3), 144–57

Dale, P. (2016), Popular Music and the Politics of Novelty, London and New York: Bloomsbury

Fitzpatrick, E. (2016), The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women's Quest for the American Presidency, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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', in Cell Biology Education, 3 (1), 22–3

Rocha da Silva, P. (2015), 'Selecting for impact: new data debunks old beliefs', in Frontiers Blog, available at https://blog.frontiersin.org/2015/12/21/4782/, accessed 30 August 2016

Spronken-Smith, R., J. Brodeur, T. Kajaks, M. Luck, P. Myatt, A. Verburgh, H. Walkington and B. Wuetherick (2013), 'Completing the Research Cycle: A Framework for Promoting Dissemination of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry', in Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 1 (2), 105–18

Walkington, H., A. Edwards-Jones and K. Gresty (2013), 'Strategies for widening students' engagement with undergraduate research journals', in Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 34 (1), 24–31

Walkington, H. and A. Jenkins (2008), 'Embedding undergraduate research publication in the student learning experience: ten suggested strategies', in Brookes E-journal of Learning and Teaching, 2 (3), available at http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/paper/embedding_undergraduate_research_publication_in_the_student_learning_experi-2/, accessed 30 August 2016

Ziegler, T. (2015), 'The Lasting Impacts of Undergraduate-Authored Research Articles', in Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, 8 (1), available at http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/volume8issue1/editorial/, accessed 30 August 2016

Zimbardi, K. and P. Myatt (2014), 'Embedding undergraduate research experiences within the curriculum: a cross-disciplinary study of the key characteristics guiding implementation', in Studies in Higher Education, 39 (2), 233–50

 

To cite this paper please use the following details: Grimwade, J. (2016), 'Undergraduates: Publish and be Damned?', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 9, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/volume9issue2/editorial Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.