“Publish or perish” is the bottom line of most scientific careers. Yet today’s science degrees tend to produce graduates lacking the writing skills to articulate their research findings. The McGill Student Undergraduate Research Journal (mSURJ) hopes to make up for this weakness.
Funded in part by faculties and student organizations, mSURJ is a competitive scientific journal. Every manuscript submitted to the journal undergoes a stringent appraisal process by the editorial board, and is subsequently reviewed by three independent experts in the field.
According to co-editor-in-chief Adrian Ebsary, there is a history of significant undergraduate research at McGill.
“Students at McGill are very interested and very involved in research. We’ve had people like Thomas Chang, a physiology undergraduate in the fifties who created the world’s first artificial cells in his dorm room here,” Ebsary said.
In the opinion of the journal’s managing editor, Marzieh Ghiasi, much of the research performed by undergraduates on campus remains out of the public eye because it is never communicated to the rest of the McGill community.
“If you can’t communicate your results and interpretations in an effective manner, then your research, no matter how significant it is, is bound to be lost in the sea of scientific literature,” Ghiasi said.
Co-editor-in-chief Sushmita Shivkumar speculates that science education has not always been so imbalanced.
“I think somewhere along the way the importance of good, solid scientific writing as a critical skill for future scientists has lost emphasis.”
She went on to note that a tendency toward multiple-choice examinations in the Faculty of Science is only part of the problem. Although there are courses offered on scientific writing at the undergraduate level – REDM 399: science writing, and EAPR 250: Research and Essay Rhetoric, for example – these credits are not required for graduation. As a result, students have few incentives to gain effective communication skills.
Victor Chisholm, McGill’s Under-graduate Research Coordinator, ack-nowledged the importance of mSURJ’s endeavor and the value of its goals.
“Science is not just about what we do at the bench; it’s also about sharing what we learn. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Discovery without subsequent communication is like a tree that falls unheard.”
The journal also encourages less technical writing about the impact of science on society through its science writing award. The monthly short essay question encourages clear, accessible scientific writing about different aspects of science and its social impact, and is backed with a cash reward for the best answer of the year.
Chisholm thinks that learning to communicate difficult science to the lay public is a critical skill for scientists. “We don’t always take the time to think about how science impacts us. Too infrequently do we work on developing the skills to be able to communicate discovery to a broader audience,” he said.
Although undergrads, thankfully, don’t perish when they don’t publish, participation in the publication process will only aid them when they begin work in the academic world.