The ins and outs of an undergrad-run journal

by | Feb 9, 2023

Students at Rutgers University have set up a scientific journal that exclusively features undergraduate research papers.
Group photo of the Aresty RURJ editorial board.

An integral part of the scientific process involves publishing in order to make new data, theories, and findings available to the wider scientific community. This helps to not only spark new ideas or research areas but plays a pivotal role in establishing an expert consensus on a given topic through peer review.

This is achieved mainly through scientific journals run by publishing houses, which, among other things, facilitate the peer review process of new papers. However, firsthand experience in publishing is not a normal part of an education in science, with the majority of students gaining exposure only once they leave grad school and enter academia or publishing in a professional capacity.

Undergraduate students at Rutgers University, on the other hand, have a unique opportunity to gain this experience. The Aresty Rutgers Undergraduate Research Journal (RURJ) is an undergraduate-run, multidisciplinary journal established in 2019 that exclusively features research conducted by undergraduate students at the university.

“The goal was to create a unique resource for fellow students to engage with the undergraduate research community at Rutgers, publish their own research, and experience the peer-review process,” explained Asher Hong, a public health and psychology student and current director of the journal’s Reviewer Program.

A unique educational experience

The initiative’s founders — past Rutgers students Frederric Kelada and Prachi Srivastava — sought support from the Aresty Research Center at Rutgers to help establish the necessary resources to run a journal where students can engage in a variety of ways, such as an author, a peer reviewer, or an editor.

“Most importantly, the Aresty RURJ attempts to expose undergraduate students to the peer-review and publication side of research, which are both difficult to come across as an undergraduate,” said Hong.

For the journal’s current team, which also includes Editor-in-Chief Jason Kawalec, an earth and planetary sciences student, and the journal’s managing editor, Miranda Barnes, a microbiology and entomology student, experimentation is just one element of scientific discovery, and a fully immersive experience in what it takes to run a journal has been unique and rewarding.

“Taking part in the peer-review and publication process of research was something entirely foreign and intriguing to me,” said Hong. “This unique opportunity to experience a side of research that undergraduates seldom get to participate in was what pulled me in.”

“I was interested in expanding my experiences beyond research to learn more about the publication process and what makes a good manuscript by cultivating skills for offering feedback on others’ work,” added Barnes. “I feel that this journal is an incredible learning opportunity.”

Empowering students

By reviewing and publishing the research being done by undergraduates across different disciplines, students gain exposure to different fields and subjects, while also helping to bring undergraduate students’ contributions “to the frontiers of thought and dialogue among the research community at Rutgers”, said the team.

This becomes immediately apparent while browsing the journal’s most recent issue, with studies covering a breadth of topics, ranging from the role of the American mall in forming community bonds, to how communication between epithelial and mesenchyme cell populations influences tumor growth, to a study in which seawater carbonate chemistry was analyzed using data collected via two gliders equipped with sensors.

“The actual publication of the papers is less important than the practice participants get giving, receiving, and implementing feedback from other students at every level of the process,” said Barnes. “It can be a humbling experience for both the student reviewers, who sometimes have to comment on papers outside of their area of expertise on account of the journal having such a broad scope, and for the authors, who have to be comfortable receiving criticism in order to make improvements on their manuscript.”

This has benefits for the undergraduate community as a whole, providing a platform for them to showcase their budding scientific endeavors.

“It’s important for undergraduates to be able to gain hands-on experience to be a well-rounded student researcher,” said the team. “Our initiative hopes to show other undergraduates the integral role of peer review in the overall research process, as well as provide a chance for students to publish their own research.”

“It also empowers undergraduate students to gain confidence by participating in academic discourse — both written in the form of the manuscript and reviews and spoken in the form of collaborations between students working together to provide feedback,” added Kawalec.

What it takes to run the journal

The day-to-day operations of the journal are almost entirely run by students, but faculty members are involved at several stages of the process. “Firstly, we have a few faculty affiliated with us through the Aresty Research Center who provide some degree of supervision and advice on implementation and promotion,” explained Kawalec.

“Most importantly, the second stage of the review process involves finding faculty relevant to the subject matter of student submissions to share their expertise in the form of a short review, ideally focusing on the technical aspects of the submission that undergraduate students may not have the skill set needed to provide,” he said.

The entire peer review process for the Aresty RURJ is double-blind, meaning the identities of both authors and reviewers are kept hidden to prevent any potential bias. When submitted, a potential paper will undergo several rounds of review.

“The first round of reviews are completed by undergraduate peer reviewers during the spring academic semester, which starts in January,” explained the team. “[These] are students of the journal’s Reviewer Program who have spent the fall semester learning the basics of peer review from undergraduate student instructors. They complete peer reviews of each paper in three cycles: individually, in pairs, and in groups (about three to four weeks total). After these initial rounds, the final product is sent to the authors for appropriate revisions.”

The next stage involves review by a graduate student and faculty member, which the editorial team says is the most time-intensive part of the process. After final revisions, the team then formats each of the papers individually and submits the final copies to the university librarians who then publish documents on the group’s online publication page.

Up-ending educational norms

Participating students say that an important element of the program is that it allows them to be able to interpret and defend scientific ideas without being graded or heavily supervised by a professor or faculty member.

This might otherwise be challenging for those who find a packed lecture hall a difficult place to ask questions, in addition to not being a conducive environment for open discussions and exploratory learning. This type of exposure allows undergraduate students to engage with science in a different way, helping build their confidence and ability to think critically about any given topic. This, says the editorial team, has far reaching benefits, even if the student decides not to continue with a post-graduate degree.

“The hands-on experiences gained from being involved with this journal […] can be translated into many other areas of the student’s life besides their research or academic experience,” said Hong. “Learning how to critically and objectively analyze a paper as a peer reviewer teaches students how to carefully weigh any given information to form their own conclusions in a way that avoids bias.”

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