Research Article

Student-Run Academic Journals in STEM: A Growing Trend in Scholarly Communication

Abstract

Student-run academic journals that publish high school, undergraduate, and graduate scholarly research are a growing trend in scholarly communication. These journals have the potential to improve the quality of future publications and editing by engaging students with the peer-review process and critical appraisal early in their professional careers. A mixed-methods Google Forms survey with 44 questions regarding journal structure, review methods, and journal management was distributed to 122 North American student-run journals. The survey received 29 responses for a 24% response rate. The number of student-run journals increased 9.9-fold from 1995 to 2015 and is projected to reach 222 by 2020. The majority of journals focused on expanding within their respective institutions to engage students: 80% of the journals’ mission statements included promotion of student research or encouragement of student publication. Despite recent growth, a large percentage of journals cited challenges including gathering manuscripts (65%), recruiting reviewers (42%), and transitioning managers (38%). Interestingly, only 33% of interinstitute journals reported these tasks as challenging. We expect the community of student-run journals to continue to grow and benefit scientific editing and publishing. Challenges these journals face may be addressed through the support of senior researchers and organizations that promote collaborations between journals, allowing journals to pool resources and expertise.

Introduction

A rapidly growing advancement in scholarly communication is the student-run academic journal. Student-run journals are defined as journals managed predominantly through student editorial boards that review manuscript submissions. These journals are diverse and include law reviews, medical journals, and various journals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the humanities. Student-run journals mostly publish student work and are distinct from professionally managed journals that exclusively publish student work, such as the Psi Chi Journal.1 This paper is an exploratory study on student-run journals in STEM, focusing on their potential to increase interest in the publication and critical appraisal process among students and young scientists.

Student-run journals first arose within postsecondary institutions largely to provide students with a low-risk opportunity to engage in scholarly writing and critical appraisal of evidence, and to promote student work.2,3 Student-run journals generally have more lenient publication standards than professionally managed journals, offering greater opportunity for students to publish papers on smaller projects or research completed for a class, while they juggle their studies and extracurricular activities.4,5 In engaging students with academic publishing and the peer-review process, these journals help to develop writing and critical thinking skills valued by researchers.3,5 In a self-assessment of the Journal of Purdue Undergraduate Research, 94% of student authors reported new knowledge about the process of publishing an article, and 72% reported learning about writing a professional publication.2 The student-run editorial board also provided students with opportunities to develop leadership and critical appraisal skills.4–7

Student-run academic journals did not arise without controversy. The academic credibility of these journals has been challenged by some academics because the student editors involved were seen as inexperienced and unprepared for their roles.8 Proponents of the journals argued most journals are supported by university faculty members who are involved with editing content and guiding student editors.9 Some also worry frequent transitions in journal management may impede development and sustainability: every year, new student editors and leaders have to be selected and trained to replace graduating students.10

Increasing enthusiasm for scholarly writing and publication through student-run journals has the potential to positively impact future editorial and publication quality. By introducing the peer-review process to students early in their training, these journals may encourage students to continue careers in research and also develop future researchers who are more proficient in scholarly writing. The early interest in literature engagement may be particularly relevant to the currently waning field of physician-scientists.11,12 These journals also train journal editors earlier; many journal editors have described editing as a difficult career path to enter because of the lack of proper training or opportunities.11,12 Furthermore, these student-run journals promote improved scientific communication with the scientific community by encouraging young scientists to articulate and share their work.

Methods

A mixed-methods cross-sectional Google Forms survey was distributed to 122 student-run academic journals in STEM. Because there is no comprehensive database of student-run academic journals, journals were identified through a Google web search. Search terms used included “student-run academic journal,” “student research journal,” “undergraduate research journal,” and “high school research journal.” The most complete list of student-run journals was compiled by the Council on Undergraduate Research (http://www.cur.org/resources/students/undergraduate_journals/), and all journals on this list, in addition to journals identified through the Google web search, were initially screened for inclusion.

The survey included 44 questions regarding journal structure, review methods, and journal management (Appendix A). These quantitative and qualitative questions covered a broad range of topics to characterize student-run journal goals and operation. Follow-up emails requesting completion of the survey were sent after one week.

For the survey responses to be included in the dataset, respondents had to be either a student editor or a member of the journal’s management, to ensure the validity of responses. In cases where multiple respondents replied for one journal, the most senior respondent’s answers were used. Journals were only included if they published work in STEM and were based in North America, and journal management or editorial services involved students. Because of intercontinental differences in academia and publishing, only North American journals were included to ensure a more homogenous study population. Multidisciplinary journals were included as long as they published articles in at least one of the STEM fields. Journals were excluded if they were not published in English or were no longer active (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Identification of eligible student-run journals for analysis. Excluded journals were not student run.

Results

Out of the 122 journals contacted, 29 journals responded, for a 24% response rate. After exclusion of duplicates and journals that did not fulfill the inclusion criteria, 26 journal responses were analyzed.

Student-Run Journals on the Rise
While student-run journals in STEM first began publishing as early as 1928, there has recently been a large increase in the number of such journals. The number of student-run journals increased 9.9 fold from 1995 to 2015 and is projected to reach 222 by 2020 (Figure 2). Journals surveyed were established a median of 9 years ago (IQR = 10), 95% of which were founded within the last 25 years (Figure 3). Most journals are not well established in the broader scientific publishing community. Currently, none of the journals have an impact factor and only 42% are indexed in at least one online journal database (Table 1, Appendix A).

Figure 2. Exponential growth of student-run journals from 1995 to 2015. R2 = 0.98052. y = 1E-105e0.1222x. The trend line is extended to 2020 to show projected growth of student-run journals. It is expected there will be 222 student-run journals in 2020.

 

Figure 3. Recent increase in student-run journals. The mean years since the establishment of both non-respondent and respondent journals is 9 (n = 100). Outliers include Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (established 1928), University of Western Ontario Medical Journal (established 1930), University of Toronto Medical Journal (established 1923), and The Journal of Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences (established 1966). If establishment year could not be identified, the year of the first issue was used.

Table 1. Summary statistics of student-run journals.

Journal Information Findings
Authorship Restriction Of the 52% of journals that restricted authorship, all of them required authors to be students. All but one journal did not charge manuscript submission or publication fees.
Mission Statement 80% of journals’ mission statements involved promoting student research or publication.
Institute Only 3 of the 26 journals were interinstitute, and all of the institute-based journals were connected to a university or college.
Indexing Publicity 42% of journals were published in at least one database. Of the journals that are indexed, 64% are in Google Scholar.
Publicity 65% of journals indicated they used social media to publicize their journal issues.

Engaging Students in Scholarly Writing and Critical Appraisal
Eighty percent of respondents stated their journal’s mission included either promotion of student research, encouragement for students to engage with research and publication, or both. In addition, just over half the journals surveyed restrict authorship exclusively to students at a certain stage of education (Table 1). For instance, many undergraduate student-run journals will only accept submissions from fellow undergraduate students. While all but one journal accept original research, many also accept other forms of submissions that do not require primary research; 64% of journals accept review articles, while just under half accept editorials, opinion articles, and interviews (Figure 4). All but one journal also had no fees for submitting manuscripts or publishing work (Table 1).

Figure 4. Distribution of accepted submission categories indicates most journals accept original research. The distribution of accepted submissions is shown as a percentage of all respondents (n = 26) “Other” includes extended abstracts, lab features, awards, cover contest submissions, news articles, and case reports.

Student-run journals also engage students by encouraging readership. All of the journals surveyed identified students as at least a portion of their target audience (Figure 5). Seventy-six percent of journals used either social media or marketing directed toward students, including in-class presentations, collaborations with on-campus clubs, and presentations at student conferences (Table 1, Appendix A).

Figure 5. Target audience of student-run journals is mainly undergraduate students. The target audiences of journals are shown as a percentage of all respondents (n = 26).

Challenges Faced by Student-Run Journals
Forty-six percent of journals had editorial boards with some to no background in the subject area of manuscripts they were assigned (Figure 6), and 85% of journals were run by students completing their undergraduate degree (Table 1, Appendix A). To maintain the credibility of the peer-review system, all but one journal also had senior researcher reviewers, which included graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members, assess papers after evaluation by student editors.

Figure 6. Level of previous editorial background knowledge in manuscripts assigned to student editors. The overall confidence of student editors for submitted manuscripts as assessed by survey responders.

Despite active promotion and marketing to student readers and writers, some student-run journals have encountered challenges in outreach: 65% of respondents stated they found gathering manuscripts submissions at least slightly challenging and 42% of journals found recruiting reviewers at least slightly challenging. Additionally, 38% of journals found management transitions to be at least slightly challenging (Figure 7). Fewer interinstitute journals than single-institute journals reported challenges in recruiting reviewers (33% vs. 53%), gathering manuscripts (33% vs. 65%) and transitioning managers (33% vs. 47%) (Figure 8).

Figure 7. Challenges faced by student-run journals. Responses (n = 24) were categorized as “challenging,” “slightly challenging,” or “not challenging” for each challenge. Two journals did not respond to the question of gathering manuscripts and three did not respond to the question on transitioning managers.

 

Figure 8. Differences in challenges between interinstitute and single-institute journals. Indicated differences between interinstitute (n = 3) and single-institute journals (n = 19) are shown.

Discussion

Growth of Student-Run Journals
Student-run journals present an exciting platform to further engage students in research, scholarly writing, and critical appraisal. It appears most student-run journals have focused on expanding within their institutions rather than the broader scientific community. Student-run journals are also largely using social media to promote their journals and gather new submissions. This strategy is logical, given that most institutional journals target only students at their respective institutions. We expect to see continued growth and development of student-run journals within their institutions as they gain recognition and readership. We also expect the use of social media to promote both student-run journals and traditional journals to grow, considering the increasing engagement of young scientists and students who frequently use social media in publishing. Given student-run journals’ use of social media, Altmetric, which captures attention a paper receives across a range of online platforms including social media, is perhaps a better tool for measuring readership of these journals than the traditional impact factor. The development of these journals can benefit the scientific community by promoting critical appraisal and scholarly writing skills in students and encouraging students to pursue careers in research. These journals should help better equip the next generation of scientists to communicate their research and critically read scientific literature.

Challenges Student-Run Journals Face
Despite the recent growth of these journals, a large number of journals continue to face challenges in recruiting faculty reviewers and student editors with sufficient background knowledge. To tackle the gap in student editor knowledge, some journal respondents state editorial board members usually do independent research before reviewing manuscripts assigned to them. While this is helpful to assist student editor comprehension of the manuscript, there is still no guarantee student editors have the experience to sufficiently fulfill the role of an editor. A few journals have instituted mandatory training for new student editors, which may be a better way of preparing student editors for the role. Almost all journals only use their student editors in initial manuscript screening and editing before sending the manuscript to a senior researcher for peer review.

It can also be difficult to find senior researchers to review papers, considering many of these journals are new and may not have established credibility at their institutions. Increasing involvement of senior researchers as advisors may ameliorate many of these challenges. Senior researcher involvement can lend student-run journals more credibility, create greater connections with potential reviewers, act as a stable form of management, and also help to promote journals to their students. Unfortunately, inducing senior researchers to commit their time to advise student-run journals can be difficult.

Interinstitute journals may face fewer challenges than single-institute journals because of a larger target population and improved access to faculty and resources at various institutions. However, only three interinstitute journals responded to our survey; therefore, their responses may not be representative of the entire population.

Study Limitations
Importantly, our identification of journals may have been influenced by selection bias as we only included journals that are currently active. Journals established further in the past are less likely to be currently active, and therefore their exclusion may have skewed the data to show a greater growth in journals recently. We did not include inactive journals as they often lack electronic records of existence and are thus difficult to comprehensively study.

In response to questions pertaining to student editors and reviewers, it was evident student journals had varied opinions about the roles of editors and reviewers. A few journals saw the two as completely distinct, as is more common in traditional journals, whereas many saw the two terms as interchangeable. “Reviewer” and “editor” may have been used as synonyms because student editors are taking on some of the responsibilities traditionally assigned to reviewers, and sometimes act as both when a reviewer cannot be found. Thus the line between the two roles may actually be blurred for many student-run journals.

Future Directions in Scientific Publishing and Editing
In order to tackle the challenges student-run journals currently face, we suggest journals increase faculty involvement and begin to pool their resources and expertise with other journals. We also expect an increasing number of interinstitute student-run journals, facilitated by the role of organizations like the Council of Science Editors and Society for Scholarly Publishing in encouraging and facilitating interinstitute collaborations. Given the proper resources and support, innovation and leadership in scholarly publication through student-run journals has great potential for promoting better scientific communication.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors of this manuscript serve on STEM Fellowship Journal’s (SFJ’s) editorial board. SFJ is an open-access, student-run, peer-reviewed journal that publishes undergraduate and high school STEM scholarly research and was one of the survey respondents.

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Kelvin Ng is on the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University. Mohammad Hossein Asadi Lari is in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of British Columbia; ORCID 0000-0003-1821-6208. Sze Wah Samuel Chan, HBSc, is on the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Rahul Krishan Arora is in the Department of Oncology at the University of Calgary. Farah Qaiser is in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. Vassi Sharlandjieva is on Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia. Sacha Noukhovich, PhD, OCT, is the Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief of STEM Fellowship Journal.