Have You Ever Thought About Getting Involved In An Undergraduate Research Journal?

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There is a misconception that submitting to academic journals is only something that professors and upper-year graduate students do.

However, there are also peer-reviewed undergraduate journals that undergrads can submit their work to for publication.

Anita Acai is a fourth year student in the Honours Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry program in the co-operative education stream at the University of Guelph. She is the Editor-In-Chief of Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph, an undergraduate academic research journal.

Anita and I recently chatted about her experiences working at the journal.

Why should undergrads submit to undergraduate research journals?

Anita: Many universities provide opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research, whether it is through a paid research assistantship with a faculty member, a co-op placement, or an honours thesis/research course requirement towards a particular degree program. What most students who are new to research often don’t realize is that research isn’t just what you do every day in the office or in the lab – conducting quality research also involves communicating your findings, conclusions, and methodologies to other people in an effective and engaging way!

Journal articles are a primary form of scholarly communication, that is, communication between researchers in a specific field. So, publishing your work in an undergraduate journal is not only a great way to develop your ability to communicate findings in your discipline, but it is also an excellent way to work on your writing skills.

As well, by going through the publication process as an undergraduate student, you will begin to develop an understanding of and an appreciation for how advances are made in your discipline. Another indirect skill that you can learn is humility and the ability to learn from constructive criticism – receiving feedback about research you’ve conducted in the form of a peer review isn’t always easy, but it does make you a better researcher (and a better person to work with!) in the end.

Anita Acai
Anita Acai, Editor-In-Chief of Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph

Is submitting to undergraduate journals something that only students who are considering graduate school should do?

Anita: Not at all! As I mentioned before, there are many “soft” skills that you can learn from going through the publication process – by having a publication on your resume or CV, you are showing prospective employers that you can produce credible work, communicate effectively in written form, accept feedback about your work and problem-solve. In today’s competitive job market, you will stand out because publications at the undergraduate level are definitely not something that everyone has.

Another thing that a lot of students might miss is that research is not only conducted by faculty members at academic institutions – many industries or governmental agencies also conduct research and publish frequently, so they are very interested in hiring graduates who have proven written communication skills and experience with publishing.

Another thing to keep in mind is professional schools – for example medicine, dentistry, or law. You may not formally be conducting research when you’re there – although many students do – but research experience is one thing that is really appealing to selection committees when you apply to professional school.

And finally, the third reason why you should publish your research findings is that if you don’t, someone else will! Although undergraduate journals may be less read than higher impact journals, they don’t go unnoticed. Many are indexed on powerful databases like Google Scholar and the articles published are from time to time cited by research groups around the world, not to mention read by hundreds of students and prospective graduate students looking to find out more about what type of research a particular institution or faculty member conducts.

How would getting published in an academic journal be helpful for students considering graduate school?

Anita: Many graduate programs are thesis-based, which means that there is the basic expectation that students will spend a large chunk of their time conducting research in their discipline. There are therefore a number of skills that are required for a graduate student to be successful – for example, the ability to communicate their findings effectively, curiosity, humility, or basic skills required for research in their discipline whether those are laboratory techniques, logical research methodologies, or statistical knowledge.

So, having conducted sufficient research to produce an undergraduate publication and actually having gone through the publication process before applying to a graduate program paints a very strong picture of a prospective graduate student. Admissions committees will look at students with prior research and publication experience as strong candidates for admission to a graduate program since they are familiar with the work they will be expected to conduct and appear to have the skills to be successful. Publishing your research gives it increased validity and credibility, since it will have gone through a review process where other faculty and researchers familiar with the discipline will have critically evaluated the research and given feedback indicating that it is worthy of publication; to admissions committees, this will give the impression that you’re capable of conducting valuable research in your field that will make a meaningful contribution to the discipline.

Also, funding agencies look preferentially upon students who have published research that they have conducted for similar reasons as admissions committees, and being eligible for funding is very appealing to potential graduate supervisors, as is the proven ability to publish.

What makes a great submission, and how can students be sure their papers meet the requirements to the journal they’re submitting to?

Anita: A great submission has both strong content and is well-written! If you’ve conducted research for a faculty member or a supervisor, always be sure to check with them first to make sure that it’s okay to publish the data that you’ve gathered and that they’re happy with the way you have chosen to present it. Faculty can also provide excellent feedback on your manuscript and let you know if they think it’s worth submitting to an undergraduate journal or if it still needs a bit of work.

Once you’re ready to submit, visit the website of the journal you’re hoping to publish in, and carefully review all submission requirements. Many journals have stringent requirements for author eligibility, referencing, formatting, and length of manuscript. As well, you want to be aware of the policies by which the journal operates – for example, it’s helpful to know how the review process for that particular journal works and what you should expect in this regard.

Once you’re comfortable that your submission is in order, it can be helpful to send a pre-submission inquiry to the editors. Most journals actually encourage you to do this prior to submitting your manuscript – this can help update you on some last-minute details including the most recent submission deadlines, important submission tips, and policies regarding the journal’s operation including timelines for the publication process.

What suggestions do you have for students who want to create their own journal?

Anita: I really encourage them to do so! Setting up an undergraduate journal can be a lot of work, but spearheading this kind of initiative can be very rewarding. It is best to team up with your school’s Office of Research or a department that is broadly familiar with the research that you intend to publish. They will give you the support that you need to begin your new venture, and they can be very useful for spreading the word about your new journal, giving it credibility, and providing you with contacts and networking opportunities.

Once you’ve set up your journal, you really want to get the word out – both to students and to faculty members. Maintaining good credibility with faculty members is imperative to the success of an undergraduate publication – they can give you excellent advice about how to run your journal successfully as many faculty members hold editorial board positions with more well-known journals. They are also the ones that will be recommending student work to you and serving as peer reviewers for that work.

In terms of maintaining credibility as an undergraduate journal, do make sure that you are publishing high-quality student work that is both legitimate research, but also high-quality communication (…so make your journal looks professional, polished, and is free of poor writing or messy formatting). Many undergraduate journals will ask authors to submit in a pre-established template that is available on the journal’s website – this helps to ensure that each article in the journal is uniform and formatted the same way, with the same referencing style throughout (…picking an appropriate referencing style can be very tricky for an interdisciplinary journal!).

And finally, encourage student involvement and have fun! Although financial resources can be limited with undergraduate publications, students can still get involved in publication management as volunteers and gain valuable skills and experiences.

As the Editor-In-Chief, what has your involvement in Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph given you in terms of skills and abilities that you can use after graduation?

Anita: I’ve gained a lot from being involved with Studies by Undergraduate Researchers at Guelph. Of course there are the more technical skills like managing the journal and our editorial team and going through the publication process from submissions to review to layout and publication, but there are also a lot of “softer” skills that I have gained. For example, I’ve really gotten to know a lot of faculty members at the University of Guelph, and I feel much more comfortable communicating with them and asking for their advice and support as student author supervisors and peer reviewers. I’ve made personal connections with a lot of them and am really grateful for the opportunities that I have been given to explore different areas of research, and for the life and career advice that I have gotten along the way.

On another note, my involvement with SURG has given me a much broader view of what research is and what it means – when I was conducting my own research in a lab on campus, I was dealing with a very specific problem in molecular biology and had that really “narrow focus” that researchers tend to get.

However, reading what other undergraduates at Guelph have studied really got me thinking about not only science, but a variety of other disciplines as well. It allowed me to draw interesting connections between ideas and to learn more about the world around me, which is one thing that I think is often missed in university. You get so caught up in the details of what you’re studying that you forget what the rest of the world is doing, and where you fit in!

I am also really supportive of SURG as avenue for undergraduate students to publish their work because I see it as a really positive learning tool. I’m very interested in post-secondary pedagogy, particularly in the sciences, so I’m always interested in teaching strategies outside the traditional lecture-style model that engage students in critical thinking and deepen their understanding of their particular area of study. Conducting research is, I think, a fantastic way for students to be immersed in their field and to learn in a very hands-on and practical way, and so I’m happy that we have a very successful publication that can serve as an outlet for the work that they do.

Photo credit: Zhu

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About the author

Danielle Lorenz is a long-time contributor to the Career Incubator. Danielle is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta. When procrastinating from schoolwork, you will find Danielle lurking on several social media platforms and trying to befriend the snowshoe hares on the U of A campus.