Young guns going for it

March 5, 1999

A new online journal is showcasing science by American undergraduates. Ayala Ochert reports

"The sooner you get involved in research the better," Mina Bissell tells undergraduates in her charge. Several of her recent students at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in California have taken this advice to heart -Jthey have launched a journal dedicated to publishing research done by undergraduates.

The first issue of Journal of Young Investigators, the fruit of nearly two years' effort by several US undergraduates, went online earlier this year at www.jyi.org.

This internet-only publication showcases research in the biological and physical sciences, mathematics and engineering.

"So many students were doing so much great work but not getting any recognition," explains Andrew Medina-Marino, the journal's chief executive officer and a biology undergraduate at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. "We wanted to show what undergraduates were capable of."

In 1996, while on a Department of Energy undergraduate research fellowship at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Mr Medina-Marino and his colleagues decided that undergraduates needed their own journal. They began recruiting an editorial board of undergraduates and secured funding from their universities as well as from research bodies, including the National Science Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome and Glaxo-Wellcome.

In recent years, many teachers of undergraduate science courses in the US have come to recognise the importance of real research experience for their students, and schemes such as the NSF's Research Experience for Undergraduates help place students. But many universities still regard research as an extracurricular activity that should be pursued during summer or winter breaks.

"Professors are starting to realise that it's only half an education if you just sit and are lectured at, but get no hands-on experience," says Mr Medina-Marino, who claims that students with no research experience are now hard placed to find graduate programmes prepared to take them.

But while students sometimes make significant contributions to their lab's research effort, they rarely get recognition through publication in journal articles. When they do, they are typically cited as the second or third author and so gain little experience of the publication process.

"This is a resource for undergraduates to find out what it is like to go through the peer-review process," says Mr Medina-Marino. "And because our reviewers are also undergraduates it is a chance for them to learn that skill too." Undergraduates are assisted in the review process by faculty members at their institutions.

The students also hope that the journal will become a forum in which undergraduates can air their concerns. "We know from our contact with young scientists that there is considerable frustration about not getting the mentoring on career issues that they would like. There is no mechanism for sharing those frustrations," says Ellis Rubenstein, editor of the journal Science, who has advised the students on the day-to-day running of a journal.

While the idea has received a mainly warm reception from scientists, a small number have been more wary, expressing concern that undergraduate publication might sometimes constitute pre-publication and so jeopardise their own chances of publication.

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