Embedding Undergraduate Research Publication in the Student Learning Experience

Authors

Abstract

This article outlines a gap in the research cycle as experienced by undergraduates and discusses how engaging with the process of publication, in its broadest sense, can allow students to complete the research process. The paper argues that learners at all levels can be supported to publish their work through embedding a variety of forms of dissemination in the curriculum. It also discusses the way in which new technology can contribute to undergraduate research publication. Arguing that all undergraduates should be given the opportunity to disseminate their research work, the paper outlines ten strategies to facilitate the publication of undergraduate research.

Helen Walkington  and Alan Jenkins

Introduction

Undergraduate research opportunities allow students to learn in ways that incorporate or enact the research process. While there are variations in these programmes the central axioms for this curriculum form can be stated as to:

  • Actively bring undergraduate students into the worlds of research;
  • Encourage and enable students to learn in ways that parallel or reflect the ways that staff themselves research in their discipline;
  • Build research opportunities into the formative processes and summative outcomes of course assessment for students in ways that retrace and register how academic staff develop and disseminate their own research in their own discipline or professional area, e.g., through research journals, conferences, exhibitions, recordings and broad/narrow casts (Jenkins, 2008).

Such programmes are well developed in the USA but have, until recently, been largely for selected students and often outside the formal curriculum, for example, through summer research programmes. Prompted by the criticisms of the influential Boyer Commission (1998), that universities were failing to bring students into the worlds of university research, there have been a range of initiatives in the United States to make undergraduate research a central and mainstream feature of institutional and departmental programmes (Karukstis and Elgren, 2007; Hodge, Pasquesi, Hirsh and LePore, 2007; Kinkead, 2003). Further to this, the Boyer Commission argued that ‘dissemination of results is an essential and integral part of the research process’ (1998, p. 24). This has led to a proliferation of dedicated American undergraduate research journals, and even the call from Baxter Magolda (2004) for self-authorship to be the central goal of higher education in the 21st century. Following this lead, a growing number of institutions in the UK have been developing undergraduate research programmes (Jenkins and Healey, 2007b) and, though still small, the number of undergraduate journals is increasing.

The student experience of the research process

In their review of literature on teaching-research relations, Hattie and Marsh concluded that institutions should ‘ensure that students experience the process of artistic and scientific productivity’ (1996, p. 533). This statement implies that undergraduate researchers should experience the entire research process. However,

for the majority of undergraduate students, the research cycle is incomplete. Undergraduate research findings are rarely disseminated or subject to feedback and comment from a broad audience. For example, the UK undergraduate dissertation is often only read by the student, the supervisor and the assessors. This represents a gap in the research cycle (Walkington, 2008a) where only limited feedback on research findings is received as part of assessed work and the process of refining and redrafting for dissemination or publication is not embedded in the student experience.

Disseminating undergraduate research

In its broadest interpretation, publication means to put into the public domain, and in the context of undergraduate research this could involve a range of dissemination activities, for example: producing a poster, presenting at a student conference, creating a website or publishing an academic journal article. Understanding research and participating in the research process are activities central to the needs of undergraduate students in higher education (Jenkins and Healey, 2007a). In order that students can experience every element of the research process (and thereby complete the research cycle) the opportunity to publish their work is desirable.

Undergraduate research journals

Writing is both a form of investigation in itself and is also how many researchers learn of the gaps in their initial understandings. Learning how to write for an academic audience is central to the process of understanding academic values. Moreover, writing is not something that happens only at the end of research, but writing and re-writing is central to re-search (Pope, 2005). Students have, among other things, reported a ‘coming together of knowledge’ and a more critical use of literature as a result of writing journal articles (Walkington, 2008b).

Undergraduate research journals in the UK vary greatly in terms of the degree to which they maintain a disciplinary focus and the extent to which their target readership is departmental, faculty wide, institutional or national. The table below includes the major e-journals dedicated to undergraduate research and outlines their institutional links.

Journal title Remit, institution and website
Biolog E Faculty of BiosciencesUniversity of Leeds

http://www.biolog-e.leeds.ac.uk/Biolog-e/index.php

Bioscience Horizons UK and IrelandPublished by Oxford Journals

http://biohorizons.oxfordjournals.org/

BURN School of BiosciencesUniversity of Nottingham

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/burn/

Diffusion All subjectsUniversity of Central Lancashire

http://www.uclan.ac.uk/migration

GEOverse GeographyNational journal being piloted at:

Oxford Brookes University, University of Reading,

University of Gloucestershire and Queen Mary, University of London

http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/social/geoverse/

Geoversity GeographyOxford Brookes University

http://www.brookes.ac.uk/schools/social/geoversity/

Origin BioscienceUniversity of Chester

http://www.chester.ac.uk/origin/

Reinvention All subjectsThe Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate research

University of Warwick and Oxford Brookes University

http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/research/cetl/ejournal

SURJ Physics and Electronic engineeringUniversity of Surrey

http://www.eps.surrey.ac.uk/surj/

The Plymouth StudentScientist Faculty of ScienceUniversity of Plymouth

http://www.theplymouthstudentscientist.org.uk/

Issues of selectivity in student research publishing

There is a range of reasons for selectivity with respect to publishing undergraduate research. There are cost, administrative and quality control reasons for restricting publication. Standards are governed by the peer review process and scope of each publication type and thus vary widely. Indeed, to mirror the experience of academics doing research, understanding that publication is highly selective, and rejection is a possibility, is part of the process of becoming a researcher.

The arguments outlined so far have provided a rationale for institutions, departments and course teams to provide a wider range of opportunities for students to complete the research cycle through to publication. We proceed to now demonstrate ten broad strategies that will enable this to be achieved, either by course leaders, subject programmes or entire institutions.

Strategies for ‘mainstreaming’ undergraduate research publication

Strategy one: build publication into dissertation and honours-level requirements

In the UK, the final-year research project or dissertation is still seen by many departments and institutions as the distinguishing feature of higher education. However, there is growing interest in rethinking the form of the dissertation, partly to meet the difficulties of supporting much larger student numbers, but also reinventing the dissertation to meet changing student interests/needs and disciplinary perspectives. In this context, some UK departments have revised dissertation requirements to incorporate research dissemination as part of formative assessment. For example, the psychology department at St Mary’s University College has integrated a poster session into the dissertation requirement. This takes place towards the end of the second year and students present and discuss an initial outline of their work (P. Brug, personal communication, 3 March 2007). In the University of Sunderland psychology department, the poster session occurs two months before the deadline for the final 7,500 word report. This clearly provides an opportunity for students to receive feedback on their research and to practice communicating their findings before submitting them as a written thesis. (M. Watson, personal communication, 21 April 2008).

Clearly, final-year honours modules, which are often strongly research based, could be assessed through the writing of academic journal articles or other appropriate disciplinary forms of research dissemination.

Strategy two: build publication into course and programme requirements

The central way to ensure that students experience undergraduate research and the dissemination or publication of the findings is to build these into course and module requirements. Oxford Brookes, through its involvement in the Reinvention Centrefor Undergraduate Research (with the University of Warwick), has developed a commitment to provide a ‘structured framework and progressive pathway for undergraduate research’ across the institution (Huggins et. al., 2007). This approach involves the creation of research-based modules throughout degree programmes, so research is not regarded as a final-year activity, but instead research experience can be developed across a range of modules. The next step is to build publication into the student experience through conferences and journals.

Charlesworth and Foster (1996) reported on the motivational impact of an undergraduate journal at Coventry University, linked specifically to two hydrology modules:

The most significant benefit is the improvement in motivation. The stimulus is provided by the competition to produce a paper which may be published in the journal. (Charlesworth and Foster, 1996, p. 52.)

Embedding publication in the curriculum takes this a stage further and ensures that it is valued by students.

Strategy three: widen what counts as ‘research’

As with definitions of research for academic staff, the notion of undergraduate research throws up controversies and tensions (Jenkins, 2008). Research activities include a broad range of dissemination opportunities, not simply the writing of journal articles.

Undergraduate research journals such as Bioscience Horizons, operating on a traditional model, publish high-level refereed articles where only ‘cutting edge’ research counts for publication. However, a broader definition of research can allow much wider participation in research dissemination. For example, the undergraduate research journal, The Plymouth Student Scientist, states in its opening editorial:

Whilst these papers represent student work that is among the best in the Faculty, they are deliberately presented warts-and-all. It is our intention to show what undergraduate research is really like, not only to illustrate the highest standards possible but to encourage aspiring scientists that good science isn’t out of the reach of undergraduates (Uttley, 2008, p. 1).

McGuinness and Simm (2003) demonstrated that student research conferences have the capacity to increase the range of learning experiences for students and improve student employability prospects. Students can experience the range of activities required to prepare for and attend a conference, including writing an abstract, preparing and presenting a poster and answering questions from delegates (Hess and Brooks, 1998). Clearly the format of conferences can be tailored to create opportunities for presenting research activity at a variety of stages from the preliminary ideas to ongoing analysis, work in progress and finished work.

Strategy four: widen the forms of publication

The term ‘undergraduate research publication’ can clearly include the traditional research journal article. However, it could also include conference posters, interactive web-based materials, videos, TV broadcasts, podcasts, etc. With such a broad definition, publication is something that all students can achieve. As we argue later, information technology can support this widening of publication opportunities. If one widens the definition of publication to include scholarship, including the scholarships of integration and engagement, this also widens the ‘intellectual spaces’ in which undergraduate research publication can be valued. Staff research in various practice- and arts-based disciplines such as health care, business, fine arts and architecture may question the view that traditional academic journal articles are the most appropriate form of research dissemination. Recognition of research outputs which include artistic composition or ‘practice as research’ (Borgdorff, 2007) and applied research/consultancy (Gibbons et al., 1994; Griffiths, 2004) also helps to widen the notion of acceptable undergraduate publication. This issue of valuing the various forms of research publication is particularly important from a student-learning perspective. The form and content of undergraduate research publications must be congruent with disciplinary interests, career directions and the accepted forms of research output in a specific discipline if students are to value publication. This is particularly important for professional and vocational disciplines

Strategy five: build the results of publication into the curriculum

If the audience of student research is a subsequent cohort it can give students a sense of becoming part of a research community (Chang and Jackson, 2007). It will also provide subsequent students with a sense of an academic level they can achieve and help them on the ‘ladder’ to high-level publication. It may allow comparative research to be built from one year to the next and longitudinal data to be created. Using the notion of ’inheritance,’ assessed research notes and final dissertations were handed down from graduating History of Science students at University College London, to incoming final-year students. They then had the task of improving and expanding upon the research, and the collected body of student research resulted in a published monograph on the chemical element Chlorine (Chang and Jackson, 2007). This approach enables research themes to be developed over a longer time frame than each individual student cohort could achieve alone. The publication of student research also supports critical reflection, where students can learn from the achievements and the mistakes of their predecessors.

Strategy six: involve undergraduate students in the publication process

By involving undergraduate students in reviewing their peers’ research, all students are brought into both the process of publication and to a better understanding of what makes an effective research publication. While student judgements may initially be naïve, and will need to be complemented by more expert opinion and training, such experiences that are supported are part of the process of becoming part of an expert research community. Some undergraduates may develop the skills and interests to take a central role in the reviewing process for a departmental or institutional journal. For example, Reinvention, the journal of the Reinvention Centre (Reinvention Centre, 2008), combines undergraduates and academic staff as subject editors, working together to review submissions. This allows less experienced reviewers to learn from their counterparts. The journal also has an undergraduate editor.

Strategy seven: train postgraduate students as reviewers for undergraduate research journals

Involving postgraduates as reviewers can aid their development as academics. The work of postgraduates can centrally involve them supporting undergraduate students and in turn helps the reviewers better understand what makes an effective research publication. The editorial advisory board of the geography e-journal GEOverse is composed of trained postgraduate reviewers. In response to a questionnaire survey they reported being motivated to be involved in the project because of a ‘desire to gain experience of the publication process’ and ‘[to] feel part of the wider geography network’. Members also noted that they would acquire teamwork and wiki skills as a result of collaborative reviewing, as well as contributing to the learning of undergraduates (Walkington, 2008a). These students are drawn from four different UK universities and review collaboratively in pairs using a wiki (a website that can be edited by both reviewers simultaneously). This overcomes the problem of being physically separated, but provides the necessary support for relatively inexperienced reviewers.

Strategy eight: make the employability benefits of undergraduate research clear to students

An understanding of research is central to the needs of the ‘knowledge economy in which students will seek employment’ (Rammell, 2006). For students one of the great potential advantages of publishing research, and involvement in the journal production process, is that it provides documented evidence for CVs and portfolios. An evaluation of The Plymouth Student Scientist showed that students’ motivation for submitting their research was to enhance CV or employment prospects (A. Edwards, personal communication, 17 July 2008). Healey also noted that those students with a desire to be involved personally in research saw clear employability benefits (2003).

Strategy nine: make effective use of current and emerging technologies

Hodge et al., (2008) note that the internet provides much greater access to primary data than in the past, so it is more feasible for students to shift to ‘discovery learning.’ Digital technology allows the combination of online information storage with tools for online collaboration, discussion and dissemination. This is beginning to break down traditional boundaries between formal and informal publication. Coupled with the rise of open-access journals, the potential for rapid sharing of information and the reduction in publication costs (Brown, Griffiths and Rascoff, 2007) these developments could serve to increase access to research findings from undergraduate research work.

Digital technology enables academic staff to more readily integrate undergraduate research publication into mainstream courses (Strategy Two). The ease of using web-based materials can support both staff and students in producing research publications, as an integral part of the way a course is taught and assessed. The following three examples highlight how this is being carried out across many institutions:

All final-year Tourism students at the University of Lincoln (UK) participate in a live virtual conference. Students are required to electronically submit a full conference paper and post a shortened version on the conference web site (University of Lincoln, 2008).

At Leicester University (UK), where first- and second-year students are taught partly through problem-based learning, final-year physics students, working in small groups with tutor support, produce three issues of an electronic journal (University of Leicester, n.d.). Initially, groups are given a problem in the form of a mock scientific paper. Groups work on the ‘published’ data or problems and submit papers for peer review or produce bids for further data on which to base submissions(D. Raine, personal communication, 4 April 2008).

At the University of New South Wales, (Australia) the Journal of UNSW Undergraduate Hypersonics publishes student research on a final-year elective course. Students are required to submit to the journal a ‘scholarly’ literature review of current hypersonics research and development, and a report on a team-based research project. The research assignment is written to the conventions of The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Journal (Boyce, 2006).

Digital technology enables a wider view of undergraduate ‘research’ to be published. In strategies three and four we argued for both widening what counts as research and broadening the forms of publication. Digital technology enables students to learn to disseminate their research in a wide variety of ways.

Greg Benfield of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development suggests that

…staff can work with the fact that many students already do publish using readily available technology. Many students use blogs, social networking spaces (Facebook and MySpace) and video/image publishing spaces (YouTube and Flikr) in their everyday lives. They are used to exposing their ideas to unknown audiences, to selectively releasing their publications (sharing) to friends, groups or the whole world, and to receiving feedback (comments). Staff can find intersections with the methods and media students are familiar with, and extend them to publish in new genres (research outputs) and to new audiences, such as disciplinary experts and other researchers. As part of this process, students will have to unlearn some of the publishing conventions they currently use in order tosuccessfully produce academic outputs including thedifferences between writing for a specific audience and writing for anyone who might listen (G. Benfield, personal communication, 4 April 2008).

One of the central reasons for limiting the number of students whose work is published is the cost in terms of time and money in the review and the production processes. Digital technology can be used to ameliorate some of these problems. For example, wikis can be used for collaborative writing and review (Walkington, 2008a) and publication of downloadable pdfs from a website rather than a printed journal can save huge amounts of time and money. It means that more articles can be published and search functions used to access topics of interest. Open Journal Systems (OJS), one of a number of electronic systems for the publication of e-journals, assists with every stage of the refereed publishing process, from submissions through to online publications and indexing (N. Mclean, personal communication, 10 April 2008; Boyce, 2007).

Course teams and institutions can develop a set of linked publication requirements and support. This can enable students to publish their research at an appropriate level. By providing supportive infrastructure (scaffolding) such as conferences, journals, author guidance, constructive peer review mechanisms, etc., it allows students to achieve publication when they might not otherwise have managed. The geography course at Oxford Brookes University is illustrative of what is possible where staff embed publication into module and programme requirements (strategies one and two).

In their first year, students write up the findings of a one-day group fieldwork project as a journal article in the module ‘Techniques in Physical Geography.’ Early in Year 2 as part of the ‘Environmental Management’ module they present team-based field or laboratory research projects in an end-of-term ‘conference.’ At the end of their second year all geography students are required to undertake field-based research as part of compulsory residential courses. The primary data collected during this module is then used in a follow-up module in Year 3 called ‘Geography: Research and Practice’ which involves writing an individual journal article based on the data collected in the field. Students work independently but receive tutorial support in writing up their research articles from academic supervisors. The articles are required to be written to the conventions of two linked electronic publications. While the submission requirements (author guidelines, referencing conventions, etc.) are identical, the aims and expected standard of each journal is different.

Geoversity is a departmental journal with an undergraduate editor that aims to showcase the range of research work being carried out by geography students at Oxford Brookes. The journal was set up with a strong pedagogic rationale and aims to get students to write individually or collaboratively using the journal wiki and to gain feedback from a team of trained postgraduate reviewers from within the department.

In contrast, the e-journal GEOverse is a collaborative publication between four UK universities (lead by Oxford Brookes) and is being piloted as a national-level journal of undergraduate research in geography. The journal publishes ‘the very best of original undergraduate research and scholarship in physical and human geography’ (Walkington, 2008a). GEOverse follows a traditional academic journal format and draws on postgraduate reviewers from across the four institutions and an editorial board composed of academic staff.

A departmental undergraduate research conference, based around informal poster sessions, provided many students with the confidence to submit their work for publication to these journals. This highlights the importance of scaffolding the research dissemination experience for students. The scaffolding of course, departmental, faculty, institutional and national environments for undergraduate research dissemination, which is encouraging and constructive, allows groups and individuals to publish their work in a way that supports them appropriately as they progress as researchers.

Conclusion

In the USA there is growing research evidence of the positive impacts of student involvement in undergraduate research programmes, including those with a focus on students publishing their research. The main gains reported are with respect to issues of intellectual identity, understanding of research and support for career aspirations (Hunter et al., 2006). Whilst evaluation of the new wave of undergraduate research journals and activities in the UK is just beginning (e.g., Walkington, 2008b), the impact of publication on employability and graduate attributes requires further research.

In founding the University of Berlin in 1810, Humboldt argued that ‘universities should treat learning always as consisting of not yet wholly solved problems and hence always in a research mode’ (quoted by Elton, 2005, p. 110). Our argument for embedding and mainstreaming undergraduate research publication as part of the student learning experience clearly depends on higher education institutions that reaffirm this stance and reinvent it in the context of a mass higher education system.

This paper has demonstrated how staff and students, across diverse institutions, have already succeeded in supporting the publication and dissemination of undergraduate research. In particular, by adopting broad notions of ‘research’ and ‘publication,’ by scaffolding dissemination opportunities and making effective use of new technologies, it seems possible to enable all students in all higher education institutions to have some experience of publishing undergraduate research. This can ensure that students have a greater understanding of the research process and in particular of the nature of research publication and dissemination.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks go to all those who provided sources, feedback and comments on this article. Both authors would like to acknowledge the Reinvention Centre for financial support for their fellowships. HW would like to also thank the HEA GEES subject Centre (GEOverse), BSLES (Student conference) and Brookes Teaching Fellowship (Geoversity) for research funding.

Biography

 


Helen Walkington is Principal Lecturer in Geography at Oxford Brookes. Through her University Teaching Fellowship and Reinvention Centre Fellowship she has integrated undergraduate research opportunities into the geography curriculum, most notably through developing and piloting GEOverse, a national journal of undergraduate research in geography, which has been operating across four universities. Her current work is evaluating the contrast in student experience between writing journal articles for publication and oral poster presentations at undergraduate student research conferences.

Alan Jenkins long taught and researched geography at Brookes and then became an educational developer/researcher. He is now Emeritus Professor at Brookes, Consultant for the HE Academy and QAA Scotland and Fellow of the Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research. His current work is on the relationship between teaching and discipline-based research, and relatedly, on adapting and mainstreaming US-style undergraduate research programmes to other national systems.

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