Scitech | Publish or perish? Perish the thought

A response to criticisms of publishing undergraduate research

While reading the October 15 issue of The Daily, I was surprised to find out in Caitlin Mouri’s article, “Publish or Perish?” (Sci+Tech, page 13) that I was supposed to feel pressured to publish research. All summer, I’d been working in a lab in the McGill Department of Biology, helping with some of the most intellectually-stimulating research I’d ever been involved in. The work I was doing was certainly a far cry from feeding fish, but it wasn’t something that any of us in my lab ever intended that I publish; the other undergraduates that I worked with didn’t seem particularly obsessed with publications either. While my current research project, due to start this winter, is barely more than a seed and is certainly a long, long way from being publishable, as an editor for MSURJ (McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal), undergraduate research and publications are never far from my mind.

Members of the MSURJ editorial board discussed the “Publish or Perish” article in depth. Given that publishing and promoting undergraduate research is the journal’s mandate and a personal passion, I felt compelled to respond further.

Mouri states in “Publish or Perish?” that a successful undergraduate research experience results from the undergraduate being integrated into the “fabric of the lab” – something that I have experienced and benefited from. I am constantly reminded about how lucky I was to find not only a lab that was doing work that I could become passionate about, but one that was also truly willing to integrate another undergraduate into their existing team. My experience in the lab would not be as positive as it is if I were just ‘Undergrad #3’ instead of ‘Kate, who has been tracing dendritic arbours,’ or if my lab-mates hadn’t spent time while waiting for incubations chatting with me like I was a peer.

However, a truly successful experience should also give undergraduates a door to the wider scientific community – and like it or not, joining the wider community is best achieved through presentations and publications. If undergraduates have done good work (as many have done – just look at our previous authors), they should be encouraged to share it with the world. As quoted by Mouri in the aforementioned article, Undergraduate Research Officer Victor Chisholm said: “When you’re in the lab, you’re participating in the creation of new knowledge.” The creation of new knowledge in research means results, and results – even undergraduate results – are meant to be shared and reviewed by others. Publishing is both a part of the scientific process and a part of the life of a scientist – being able to communicate one’s passion and knowledge about science is an important component of research. To fully experience what it means to work in a lab, undergraduates should take the time and do the work – some of it long and tedious – to put together a paper that is up to peer review.

I hate the idea that people might think the work I do as an editor, and the work MSURJ does as a journal, is part of a system that puts undue pressure on undergraduates to publish; that is not why MSURJ exists. I believe the original author and I (and, of course, MSURJ) share many of the same goals – undergraduates should have the kind of experiences in the lab that enrich their education and fuel their passion for their field, without being pressured to publish. However, I would caution those who seek to reduce the emphasis placed on publications for undergraduates to ensure they don’t end up underemphasizing them instead. While publications should absolutely not be the only goal of research, the value of undergraduate publications cannot be understated or dismissed as a part of an unnecessary trend. But hey – I might be biased.

Kate Sheridan is a senior editor for the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal and a U2 Cognitive Science student. She can be reached at kathleen.sheridan@mail.mcgill.ca.


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