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The Final Steps of Your Undergraduate Research Experience: Peer Review and Publishing

Conducting research is quickly becoming an integral part of the undergraduate STEM curriculum. The benefits of self-directed research early in an undergraduate education is echoed by my colleagues at The Student Blog (notably, Sarah Bhattacharjee, Rachel Cotton, Sean Lim) and large advocacy groups like the Council on Undergraduate Research. On paper, the increase in student research has very little to show, even with the developing trend of undergraduate-only research publications. Too many students and their faculty advisors are failing to recognize that the research is not complete until it is peer reviewed and presented to an audience. While undergraduate research journals have existed for some time, (for example, the Beloit Biologist for over 30 years and the Journal of Young Investigators for 17 years) the awareness of these opportunities is still lacking. When I speak with my peers, few of them are aware of the many opportunities for undergraduates to publish their research. The most common forum for young scientists to present their research is through conferences such as the Beta Beta Beta Conventions, MCMS Symposia, and NCUR. While these fantastic opportunities can contribute greatly to the development of a young scientist’s career, I believe that undergraduate-only refereed research journals provide an invaluable platform for the student research, well beyond other media.

Charles Darwin, who presented his research on leech eggs as an undergraduate
Charles Darwin, who presented his research on leech eggs as an undergraduate

Why you should try to publish as an undergraduate

1. Active and individualized feedback will help improve your scientific writing

Undergraduate STEM students are huge consumers of scientific literature. Students are introduced to primary research articles within the first few classes of their education. Many of these articles are poorly written. In a recent blog post, my fellow blogger, Jahlela Hasle, posed a very important idea; she said, “Why is the [scientific] writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write.” Sure, we have all written countless lab reports, but in most cases, we are never asked to improve and revise our writing. Professors and TAs simply do not have the time to offer individualized feedback about their students’ writing. This is where peer review comes in. Many universities have implemented aspects of peer review and mock-publishing activities as part of their curriculum, with much success (and little additional work for the faculty). For example, at the University of South Carolina, the use of peer review contributed to the advancement of students’ writing skills and scientific reasoning abilities as measured by objective tests. Not surprisingly, the students agreed! Eighty-three percent of students involved in the peer review reported that it improved their writing, editing, researching, and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, the implementation of peer review within formal coursework is still too uncommon.

The unfortunate destination of far too many undergraduate research papers [Wikimedia Commons]
The unfortunate destination of far too many undergraduate research papers [Wikimedia Commons]
2. It will professionalize your education

While most educators emphasize the importance of student-directed research projects, they must also recognize that a research experience isn’t complete until it is published. Peer review and peer assessment are an unavoidable component of a professional science career. Most research projects are bookended by peer review—first through proposal evaluation, then through publishing.  In order to professionalize an undergraduate science education, research experiences should be designed in a similar manner. Engagement in publishing is encouraged in many other disciplines, such as art, journalism, and creative writing yet it is unnecessarily avoided in the sciences.

3. You can get excited!

In my own experience, my first time publishing in an undergraduate-only research journal was an incredibly exciting experience. Not only did it give me confidence in what I can do, but I learned to communicate like a professional. Just as importantly, I have evidence that I can communicate! Now, I have a better idea of what to expect in graduate school and beyond. One of the most cited benefits of having journal-quality work as an undergraduate is that it provides evidence of a student’s gumption, independence, and ability to communicate clearly.

An undergraduate student realizing his dreams

Criticisms of Undergraduate Research Journals

Despite the apparent benefits of undergraduate-only journals, some oppose the idea. Critics argue that undergraduate publishing will “up the ante” and put unnecessary pressures on both students and their faculty advisors. Interestingly, the negative reaction to undergraduate journals often come from those who value undergraduate mentoring in their own labs. Many of the criticisms are along the lines of what Scott F. Gilbert argues, “If the research is good enough, it should be published in a ‘real’ journal.” By extension, if undergraduate-only research journals publish only “sub-par” research, who will read them?

What these arguments fail to recognize is that undergraduates, especially those who perform self-directed work, have much less time, money, and resources than research faculty. This disadvantage should not limit their ability to have their work peer reviewed and published. This is why undergraduate-only research journals primarily benefit the authors, and only secondarily benefit the readers.

To those who think that publishing should not be the status quo in a serious undergraduate STEM education, I pose the question: What is the purpose of an undergraduate education?

How to get involved in undergraduate publishing

It is extremely easy to get involved in peer review and publishing as an undergraduate. The Council on Undergraduate Research compiled a list of undergraduate journals. Many of these journals use undergraduate students as reviewers, editors, programmers, and designers. The journals span subjects from religious studies to physics. Some notable nation-wide journals include the Journal of Young Investigators, BIOS, Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, and EvoS. In addition to these, an increasing number of undergraduate colleges are starting their own institutional journals.

[Credit: Grace Gockel]
Nathaniel Omans is a recent graduate of Beloit College where he founded the Beloit Undergraduate Research Journal. He plans to pursue his interests in neuroscience and education at Columbia University in the fall.



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