Publish to Flourish: My motivations for publishing research done by undergraduates

publishPublication is a vital component in scholarly pursuit, especially for the maintenance and advancement of one’s research agenda (hence the mantra “publish or perish”).
Yet, getting research results published is time-consuming, hard work. Peer-reviewed journals have high expectations and a preference for a fully-developed story, rather than small advances in the field. Putting together a manuscript worthy of a top-tier journal is difficult enough for research faculty, post-docs and graduate students, for whom it is their primary focus. Successful publication of work done by undergraduates is even more challenging. These budding scientists are novices; they need hands-on training, often have other distractions, such as course work or other extra-curricular activities, and may only be able to make a short-term commitment to the endeavor.

“…compiling and submitting the work done by undergraduate students for publication may seem daunting and unattainable. Yet, I feel the rewards outweigh the struggle it may take to succeed.”

Making headway on research questions requires a significant amount of planning, monitoring and coordinating by the adviser, and progress is often only incremental. Thus, compiling and submitting the work done by undergraduate students for publication may seem daunting and unattainable. Yet, I feel the rewards outweigh the struggle it may take to succeed.

Publishing the work of my undergraduates keeps me connected

As a faculty member at a small, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), it is easy to feel a bit isolated professionally. I am one of two biochemists on campus, and I work in a different subfield than my colleague. So, as compared to graduate school and my time as a faculty member at a large university, the opportunity on campus for in-depth, face-to-face discussion of research ideas, techniques, results and so forth is rare.  Also, for some students, my colleague and I may be their only examples of a “biochemist”.

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Making the effort to publish the work the students do in my laboratory is vital to keeping our research group linked to the larger community in our field. It forces not only me, but my students also, to keep abreast of the primary literature in order to put our work in perspective and keep us apprised of new trends.

“Making the effort to publish the work the students do in my laboratory is vital to keeping our research group linked to the larger community in our field.”

Needless-to-say, publication is also an expectation for tenure and promotion; at an institution like ours, publication with our students is a huge plus. Finally, the connections made by publishing student research can lead to valuable networking opportunities for research collaboration beyond our campus, and greatly benefits the students involved.

Publishing the work of my undergraduates gives students a sense of ownership

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My own undergraduate research experience was instrumental in my development as a scholar. Seeing my name “in print” the first time was a thrill, even though it was only in the acknowledgements section. It gave me a sense of belonging as a novice scientist.  When I accept students into my research group, I consider them as apprentices in the scientific enterprise. Their work in my laboratory gives them a chance to participate in the field, to “test the waters”, to discern the role scientific endeavors might have in their future. All of our students are required to write a paper and give a presentation here on campus, as part of our Senior Inquiry requirement.  Yet, I have found that when they know that their work will be shared with and be of interest to the larger community in our discipline, they gain a substantial sense of ownership of their project. This translates into a greater sense of responsibility and commitment, whether the goal is the preparation of a poster for a national meeting, preliminary data for a grant application or a manuscript for publication.

 

“When I accept students into my research group, I consider them as apprentices in the scientific enterprise.”

In the end, such accomplishments pay off not only to me as their adviser. My students find that such material evidence of their success is invaluable in the graduate school application process or on the job market. So, not only for myself and my own professional progress, I am motivated to publish the work of my students for them.

Publishing the work of my undergraduates enhances institutional visibility

Publishing undergraduate research benefits not only me and my students, but our institution as well. It provides tangible billboards, showing what our students are doing and how they are part of the greater scientific community.

“Donors to the college want to be part of preparing the next generation; publications are a clear way to show the prior achievements of our students…”

I have been struck by the increasing number of prospective parents and their students who are looking for research opportunities during the undergraduate experience. They understand that the chance to do lab work outside of the classroom setting is important preparation for jobs and further study. Finally, visibility of the institution and the research we do is imperative for the acquisition of funding from private and public sources. It is almost as if funding works on a “snowball” model.  Donors to the college want to be part of preparing the next generation; publications are a clear way to show the prior achievements of our students, so they see what they can be part of. Funding agencies want to know that we are capable of doing that which we propose. Without evident success in the past, securing future monies is arduous.

impactwordleWhere to publish?

The next question is “where”? Ideally, one wants to publish in a first-tier disciplinary journal (for me Biochemistry or The Journal of Biological Chemistry). But, these journals usually include only articles describing substantial progress on topics of relatively broad interest.  And, because of the slower pace and incremental nature of undergraduate research, I find that I must have a more open mind about this question. I have had success with publications of a narrower focus. And, there are peer-reviewed journals devoted to undergraduate research (such as The Journal of Young Investigators). Finally, poster presentations at national, regional and even local scientific conferences are a fine venue for undergraduates to gain practice telling others about their work. In conclusion, getting students’ work published whether as a presentation or a peer-reviewed article is a “win, win, win” for me, my students and my institution; we “publish to flourish”.

I thank Dr. James A. Phillips for stimulating conversations about this topic. I also thank Dr. Amanda Wilmsmeyer and Dr. José Boquin for valuable comments.


 

trotter_pamela~ Dr. Pamela  Trotter is the Robert W. Beart Professor of Chemistry at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. Her group studies various inner mitochondrial membrane transporters in lipid, amino acid and carbohydrate metabolism of Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and, through an international collaboration, in the oleaginous yeast Yarrowia lipolytica.

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