Undergraduates are more than the scientists of tomorrow

In this blog post by David S. Rovnyak and George C. Shields, the authors argue that undergraduate research isn’t just “good for” our students, but it also contributes significantly to the body of scientific knowledge. Bias against quality and productivity in the undergraduate research lab is misguided.

Scientific contributions from undergraduate researchers are real

The discussion of undergraduate research often begins and ends with a discussion of the benefits for students. We understand that undergraduate research helps students build critical thinking skills, fosters a foundation for the scientific process, and creates hands on classroom experiences.
While these are truly valuable outcomes, they undervalue what undergraduate research contributes to the advancement of scientific knowledge. In short, some in the scientific community treat undergraduate research with kid gloves and a “good for them” mindset. They don’t doubt the benefits it offers students, but when it comes to true scientific innovation, the attitude is that it’s best to leave that to professionals at the flagship institutions. Such biases couldn’t be more misguided. For example, a recent study by Michelle Kovarik documented 52 articles by primarily undergraduate institutions between 2009 and 2015 that made advances throughout analytical chemistry such as in spectroscopy, microfluidics, and electrochemistry.

“…undergraduate research contributes to the advancement of scientific knowledge …”

Making an impact, in spite of the challenges

In 2017 we surveyed the h-index of chemistry faculty from 22 highly selective undergraduate institutions, to determine the impact of their research. We saw that assistant professors commonly had values between 5-15, with associate and full professors often increasing to high teens and 20’s, with a few faculty even higher. Moreover, these are systematically low since we based them off of a core collection (ISI Web of Science) to ensure reliable values, not the overinflated values from Google Scholar. This limited sampling of significant research impacts points to much broader
accomplishments by undergraduate institutions.

George Shields with undergraduate researchers

Perhaps most impressive is that these impacts have been made despite undergraduate institutions facing some unique challenges in seeing their work published. In speaking with some of our colleagues over the years, some common concerns emerged. For example, researchers believed a manuscript was more likely to be declined from high profile journals without review because of their institution. While speculative,
some investigators perceived that if the same manuscript had been submitted under the name of their former PhD laboratory, it would have more likely proceeded to peer review.

“…researchers at undergraduate institutions have experienced negative feedback on grant applications and manuscripts that was not based on any of the findings or data in the publications, but rather on the mere involvement of undergraduates. ”

Also, researchers at undergraduate institutions have experienced negative feedback on grant applications and manuscripts that was not based on any of the findings or data in the publications, but rather on the mere involvement of undergraduates. “This work can’t be done by undergraduates” was a familiar refrain. Despite these setbacks, undergraduate institutions have unique strengths to further scientific research, such as committing internal support to research as a part of the
institutional mission.

Since faculty members are conducting research because they want to, rather than because they have to, undergraduate institutions actually value having fewer, high quality papers, rather than emphasizing a high rate of publishing.

Turn your weaknesses into strengths

Perhaps the most valuable strength is a low-stakes environment to foster publishing research. While many undergraduate institutions do include research expectations in faculty evaluation, teaching loads and high service commitments are priorities. Since faculty members are conducting research because they want to, rather than because they have to, undergraduate institutions actually value having fewer, high quality papers, rather than emphasizing a high rate of publishing.

By contrast, high stakes publishing is coming under increasing scrutiny. Editors of the major medical journals Lancet and JAMA have expressed concern that high-stakes research has led to a culture in which a surprising percentage of medical studies are not trustworthy. Further, retraction rates are actually higher in high profile journals such as Science and Nature than they are in lower-tier journals.

“A great strength of American Higher Education is the diversity of the institutional types. Undergraduate institutions should not try to replicate the type of research being done in other types of research settings. All can have a unique contribution to the scientific community. “

Undergraduate institutions also offer the ability to focus on fundamental research at a time where grants and funding are offered with the expectation of specific and highly applied returns on investment. A recent report of scientists from MIT noted that public funding for basic inquiry has dropped significantly in research institutions, damaging innovation in the United States. While it does happen from time to time, undergraduate institutions are not pressured to generate intellectual property, spawn startup companies, or collaborate with private sector industries. Instead, these valued outcomes happen organically, not out of career pressures.
A great strength of American Higher Education is the diversity of the institutional types. Undergraduate institutions should not try to replicate the type of research being done in other types of research settings. All can have a unique contribution to the scientific community. What is disheartening, however, is the mindset that one is more valuable than the
other. Indeed, a number of faculty members who recently joined primarily
undergraduate institutions shared with us that they perceived more freedom to be fulfilled in their research endeavors than at other types of research institutions. Instead of an either/or mindset, we should value the contributions of both. Undergraduates are more than the scientists of tomorrow, they’re also making an impact today.


David Rovnyak is Professor of Chemistry at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA.

George Shields is Provost and Professor of Chemistry at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

This article was adapted from an article first published in Inside Higher Education: “How Undergraduate Research Drives Science Forward: Unfair biases lead to the underevaluation of the role of such research in the advancement of knowledge” David S. Rovnyak and George C.
Shields, Inside Higher Education, July 10, 2017.

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