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Master's Students: Publish Your Research!!

It has recently become apparent (to me) that Master’s students do not publish their research here in the UK, or at least not enough. I’ve been informed by several people that in US-based institutions, Master’s students are continuously encouraged to publish their material. This disparate state of affairs is something that requires addressing.

Last year I undertook an MSc taught entirely at the Natural History Museum in London. One of the requirements, as with most postgraduate courses, was to undertake a research-based thesis. Out of the 21 students, so far only a single person (Roland Sookias) has had their thesis published, and this just recently (1.02.2012). I have been informed that from at least the previous two years, not a single student on this course has published their thesis! In fact, during the entire year I studied there, not a single supervisor/lecturer even mentioned formal publication or how to even approach manuscript preparation. This is an essential skill that all students should be taught really, and at least in my academic experience has been mysteriously neglected, by both students and their respective supervisors and lecturers it seems.

I asked various friends from a range of Master’s courses what they did with their dissertations/theses after course completion. Dave Marshall, 3 years after completing the MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol University (UK), is still in the process of manuscript preparation, through his own dedication whilst maintaining a full time job. Simon Tonge of Manchester University (UK) undertook a Biomedical Sciences MSc (or something similar), and chose not to pursue publication, despite his enticing work on 5 flucytosine resistance in the pathogenic yeast, C. albicans. Ben Hyde from my first Master’s course (Geology) at the University of Manchester is close to submitting his research to Palaeontology, one of just two examples I know of where an attempt to publish an undergraduate Master’s thesis has been made. Conversely, Lauren Clark, who has just finished her MSc in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London, published two papers based on her undergraduate thesis at Princeton University. I know this is a very small sample, but there does seem to be a tendency for Master’s students in the UK to not publish. Promisingly however, Holly Barden who is currently undertaking a Palaeontology/Biochemistry Ph.D. at Manchester University did publish her undergraduate Master’s thesis last year. Annoyingly however, this seems more often to be the exception, not the rule. She mentioned that she was the only one to be published from her course that year. I’d estimate in total, Master’s thesis publication rates in the UK are less than 10% per year per course on average.

When it comes down to it, there are 4 options really that students have with respect to the issue of publication:

  1. They simply chose not to
  2. Their work was insufficient for publication
  3. They attempted to publish, and failed
  4. They published formally in a peer-reviewed journal

I’m currently re-writing my own thesis into a manuscript that is acceptable for publication, having probably been at option two before. It’s not that difficult, just removing a bit (a lot..) of the chaff and reformatting, with a little guidance from my supervisor. Some students from the MSc were quite clearly with me at option two at the end of the course. Many simply reverted to option one, which is the worst option possible. The NHM in London is a world-class research institution, and all research conducted here should be published, regardless of the academic level of the person conducting it. To simply shrug off this responsibility is near-enough a crime to scientific progression. Especially if destructive processes are involved (e.g., DNA extraction and sequencing in invertebrates), as this research can never be replicated again (not a single one submitted any form of data to online repositories, as far as I’m aware).

Disclaimer: Attempts to reformat your thesis may lead to an annihilation of the soul.

Roland and Holly should be an example to all Master’s-level students; they certainly have been for myself at least. Typically, the point of higher education (at the MSc/MRes/Ma level) is that it is used as a stepping stone into additional education such as a Ph.D. For this, it usually helps to have publication experience, the best opportunity of which is with your Master’s thesis. To exemplify this, Roland is now undertaking a Ph.D. in Munich in a related topic to his thesis, and is set to conquer the academic world now. I’ll be checking up on him around Oktober time. On the other hand. if you’re not planning on going into further education after course completion, this should not prevent attempts at publication. It only takes a little while to transform a thesis into a manuscript adequate for formal publication (depending on the initial quality), and after 6 months or so of dedicated research, it’s hardly strenuous. And a student is hardly alone in the dark either; supervisors typically must be put down as a co-author of any work submitted by one of their students, and they can therefore play any role desired in manuscript preparation.

To summarise, Master’s-level research is a severely under-tapped source of scientific research in the UK, admittedly based on my small sample. This is not just in terms of results and conclusions drawn, but also the literature critiques that accompany them, potential new methodologies, and the original re-usable data. Publication furthermore promotes an individual’s academic growth, and credibility as an author. I’d imagine that employers outside of academia would look upon this well too. Despite potentially being a difficult and time-consuming task, preparing and submitting a manuscript can be emotionally satisfying, and give a student a great sense of accomplishment and a confidence boost.

Master’s students: PUBLISH YOUR RESEARCH

0 thoughts on “Master's Students: Publish Your Research!!

  1. There’s a fairly significant difference between a UK Masters and a North American one (as I’m currently finding) as most Masters students in the US and Canada take a couple of courses and spend the vast majority of the time on research, as opposed to most of their time on courses with a project at the end as happens in the UK.

    I think this probably accounts for the difference in publication rates. A number of students have told me here that they won’t be put forward for their defence (viva) until they’ve published three journal articles.

    1. Wait, was that last bit for PhD or Master’s students? 3 papers from one project is quite a bit – are you sure that’s not for an MRes?

      I think the time is quite variable in the UK. I spent pretty much the whole year in my first Master’s doing the research etc. around courses, but then in the one at Imperial there was dedicated time for it in the final 5-6 months, excluding a couple of weeks for exams. More than enough time in both cases to create something vaguely decent..

      1. It’s for a normal Masters degree here, which is somewhat similar to an MRes and over around two years. The major difference is timeframe involved and the fact that the MRes style is the absolute standard (my course based program is seen as very unusual).

  2. I knew I should have sent you an email.
    In the states there’s a a growing trend where theses and dissertations should be written as a series of papers and then compiled – each of my dissertation chapters are going to be separate publications, with a separate introduction and conclusions section rounding it all off. My masters thesis was not done like that, and it took me a while to reformat stuff. That said, my first paper was submitted in late November 2008 (I finished september that year) and was published in 2009. The rest of my thesis was published in two other papers (one requiring a bit of further work) in 2010 that had been submitted in 2009. I also had a paper published in 2010 on research not linked to my thesis that I started with my supervisor while at Bristol. Finally, while largely unemployed I also applied for a small grant as an independent researcher to visit Edinburgh and look at some of their specimens – the resulting monograph was published last month. It can be very difficult when working and with limited resources, but whether or not a student publishes is largely down to the student. I had a friend who did actually submit a paper but it can back with major corrections required and the lack of interest from his supervisor (who had moved jobs) meant he never redid it, although he could have done it by himself.
    Basically, people who want to publish do so. I suggest anyone that wants to try and get a PhD does, as it was my body of publications that helped me secure offers from the States. It also helps get you known, which is important. Of course, it’s only good if your thesis was any good…

    1. Kudos James, clearly you’ve put in a lot of effort and I’m glad it’s paying off for you! 🙂 I do feel though that you, like Holly, are more the exception than the trend. Maybe getting a PhD is actually the sole driver behind thesis publication at Master’s level then. In which case the question becomes, why do an MSc in the first place?! And there are other perks to publication, even if a PhD isn’t that proximal target..

      Sidenote: I *think* there is an intrinsic difference between a thesis and dissertation though: the former has a single unifying theme/narrative throughout, the latter can be more ‘discordant’, like sticking a staple through several papers for example (not that either is better or worse).

  3. I should mention that to my knowledge when I left uni after my masters no one I know of was thinking of publishing from their work but I don’t know if any of them subsequently did. I think one of the problems is that manuscript preparation and an introduction to the publishing process is sorely lacking in many undergraduate and masters taught programs. I think I was very lucky that at Sheffield one of the few taught courses in my masters year focussed on that whilst the rest of the time was spent on research. We were also instructed to write up our work as a paper and not a thesis which was, I feel, significantly beneficial. I think this is something that should be pursued in more universities, not least because if you want to be a scientist you need to publish but because the style of writing for a thesis and a paper are usually quite different.

    1. Great points! Roland who I mentioned above submitted his thesis in the format of Palaeobiology, and subsequently got it published, in PNAS though. Reformatting should not be a big issue, I’m doing it now and it’s pretty easy and not that time consuming.

      1. When I did the MSc at Bristol there was a whole module on scientific communication that, too, guided you through the submission and review procedures. I think people who don’t submit papers for publication off the Bristol palaeo MSc either feel they don’t have time or just don’t care, rather than feeling unable to.

        1. That’s great to hear about the course! I might e-mail the course supervisors at Imperial asking them to make a module on sci comm now.

          Do you not think that’s just bad practice though? I mean, what’s the point of doing a degree in Palaeobiology if not to go into a PhD after? It’s hardly like non-academic employers are screaming out for palaeontologists..

  4. As other people pointed out, I think the major constraint here is time. Most master’s projects don’t go on for 5-6 months, but they are basically carried out over the summer. If you include post-exam relaxation, a week of holidays and writing up your thesis, this is really not much time at all. This has two consequences: firstly, it is hard to get enough material of sufficient quality to publish in a peer-reviewed paper if your project does not continue on some already existing work that can give you a jump start. And secondly, preparing a manuscript for a “good” journal usually takes quite a lot of time, not to mention the review process that can drag for a year after it.
    Hence, if someone doesn’t work to pursue an academic career, why bother? Your “moral argument” that you owe it to human knowledge is a bit weak in the mind of a student that has just, finally, finished with their studies forever. Especially so in a system where education is viewed as a necessary evil that gets you skills in return for a quite considerable lump of money.
    However, I don’t any reasons, other than ignorance and inertia, why supervisors don’t encourage or even require students to upload their final manuscripts in online repositories or open access journals. This does not require any extra effort or time on top of writing your thesis. And I can easily see lots of students putting a bit more effort into that text if they know that it is not going to be read once by a supervisor that doesn’t really cares and then be left to rot in the real or electronic basement of some university library.

    1. I’d like to think 5-6 months of dedicated research time was more than enough time to collect enough data to publish. I collected enough for two separate projects last year, both highly publishable. Reformatting should not be an issue to put someone off – it doesn’t take that much time or effort, and after the 5-6 months what difference is a couple of weeks? It’s not exactly like everyone has to get a Nature-quality paper, there are hundreds of journals out there for any subject to submit to.

      Yeah, reviews usually take 6-24 months, but the student doesn’t exactly have to do much during that time, except get a job, and usually make revisions.

      Wow, that’s a really pessimistic outlook Kostas 😉 – a BSc is for skills, but what is the purpose of an MSc/Ma, especially if you know the majority of your time is going to be taken up by doing very specialist research? I could apply the same question to Ph.D level research, except that it is obligatory usually for the thesis to be formally published afterwards. The only difference is the expectation.

      Most of the techniques we learned on the MSc (DNA extraction and PCR, geometric morphometrics, phylogenetic analysis) have little to no use outside research. Research projects were typically of this kind too. I see not a single non-academic role where I can apply the specific skills I learned during my research, and the same for pretty much every other.

      As for uploading into online repositories, this can be dangerous as the work can be be easily plagiarised if the work isn’t to be published. Publishing in OA journals costs money from the author too. But yeah, more encouragement from supervisors is something which would be greatly beneficial, and as Holly said maybe a few classes so that students know what they’re facing.

      1. I prefer to look at it as a “realistic outlook”. You really think the 250k+ postgraduate students here last year (of which about 10% corresponds to “research postgrads” and 50% are overseas) were aiming to continue on with research in or outside academia? The MSc is one more qualification, which allows you to bargain for jobs on better terms – especially if it is from a “Russel group” university. It might be a bit different for non-engineering subjects, but my impression is that people doing MSc degrees are mainly British who did not/could not do an MEng at once and overseas/EU students who want more specialization, a change of career or a degree from a more well known university.
        Obviously there are people who do it to continue on research or just because they are interested, but they are definitely not the majority. Why would these people go through the not so simple as you claim process of publishing in a peer reviewed journal? If publication was easier they would consider it, or it could even be made mandatory.

  5. I like the point you’ve raised about online data repositories. Seems fair that if someone chooses not to publish the data they’ve collected (which can on itself be very valuable, as you mentioned), just adding metadata and making it available for other researchers interested in building upon it should be encouraged. Reformatting can be a pain (especially in my case, in which it also includes translating it into English), so sharing data would at least make the knowledge available.

    To increase your sample size, we have a student in my PhD program who took his MSc at the Imperial College, with data collection at the Museum, and he has published his masters work: http://gozips.uakron.edu/~tia10/ . I have published two papers from my masters myself, but the third one has been sitting in my desktop for three years, just because there is too much going on with my PhD for me to spend the time editing, formatting and updating it (which is a shame, because I saved my “favorite for last”, and I’d really like to see it published)… In Brazil its not common place to publish MSc thesis, and most who do are the ones aiming at a PhD and therefore trying to pump up their CVs – students that get “actual jobs” rarely revisit their thesis.

  6. To echo a bit of what netgull said, there is not much real (i.e., monetary) incentive to publish if you leave academia. I’ve known a fair number of people who finished their education with a terminal master’s degree, and only a few have published their work. There are probably several factors at play. For some, the graduates just didn’t deem it a priority, because publication wasn’t important to them. Outside of academia, few (including employers) care whether or not you publish your thesis. In a small percentage of cases, their graduate school experience was so negative (for whatever reason) that they want nothing to do with it ever again. In other rare cases, they were not capable of doing the work (i.e., the advisor did the heavy lifting for the research). Reasons are myriad.

    1. Yeah, I was just thinking about incentives. I’d like to think that graduates would take a bit of pride in their work, and pursue publication not for any incentive apart from the belief that the last ~6 months work weren’t just for the sake of a grade on your CV.

  7. Some interesting points here, but I think that your basic thesis – that Masters students should publish their thesis – is very subject specific. It may be that the comments of a Masters student on ‘fossils and shit’ are relevant. But in physics, most Master’s theses are not (IMHO) suitable for publication.

    I have published papers in which some of the work has been performed by ‘A’ level students on work experience and internships. But the students were basically labourers who were implementing my plans. I have also had students who published their final year undergraduate project in Physics Review Letters! But these cases are rare.

    In physics, Masters students are rarely aware of the subject area and topic detail in sufficient detail to publish significant results. But if they are – then yes – go for it! I think the situation varies from one field to another.

    All the best

    M

    1. Yeah, agreed – it does seem to vary a lot between disciplines. It would be good to see more published though, especially from the core science/medicine disciplines, there are a wealth of journals out there that range in the quality of their published work.

      I wonder then if would be possible to create some kind of online repository for students to freely deposit their work, just for the sake of making the text and the data publicly available.

      I love how you suggest that some students are minions doing your evil bidding.. I have to stop watching cartoons before bed.

      Cheers for your comments!

      Jon

  8. I largley disagree with most of this post, Jon. Firstly, to the facts. Masters students on the NHM course do publish their research: your assertation that no one has published anything in the last two years is not true. The year before you, Rick Thompson, who was supervised by Paul Barrett and me, published his research on ankylosaur phylogeny (the paper is currently in press at the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology and available from the website). Rick’s masters work was excellent, detailed and he was driven and enthusiastic about publishing it. He is currently doing a PhD with Rob Asher at Cambridge. Unfortunately, not all research that comes out of Masters projects is as good as Rick’s, and much of it is not good enough to be published.

    The NHM is a world-class research institution, and therefore it absolutely cannot allow publication of everything that students do: only work which is of good enough quality should be published: that’s how it has achieved its position as a world-class institution. It cannot allow any old guff to come out in its name.

    Researchers are busy people. They have their own research, their PhD students, their postdocs and an endless amount of beauracracy taking up their time. The bottom line is this. If you want to publish your research as a masters student, YOU have to take the initiative. You have to approach your supervisor and say you want to publish it. At that point, they may say (a) it’s not good enough; (b) it’s okay but needs more work, apply for some funding and we’ll see; or (c) go ahead and write it up and we’ll see what you come up with. They’ll then probably take the paper and dissect it and make you re-write it until it’s good enough. This takes a lot of work from you. My masters work was published in 2006, but I finished it in 2003. There are neverending hoards of masters students doing research. Some aren’t interested in going into research: there’s no point them writing up anything as it’s just a waste of time, but if they’ve done something amazing then the supervisor will probably follow it up and it’ll get published eventually. Some want to get into research but aren’t good enough, in which case their research probably isn’t good enough to be published. And some want to get into research, their research is good enough, and they take the initiative to publish it. Masters students in the US frequently spend 2 or 3 years doing a masters, which is why they have time to publish more.

    1. Hey Susie,

      Cheers for the intel on Rick – I wasn’t aware of him. That still is only one person out of a class of ~20. Considering this is a highly regarded course, that’s pretty low. And as for it being in the NHM/Imperial, I’d like to think that Master’s-level students here are capable of producing high quality research, otherwise firstly why are they doing the course, and secondly, why were they allowed on to the course (although they’re both totally separate issues..).

      But yeah, I’m more beginning to think it’s not because of the courses themselves, it’s due to the students firstly not producing high quality research, and secondly being lax about publishing. Although being at a beginning point of a career, I do think that a little help should be required from supervisors. Norm is the head of your group, and he’s still finding the time to help me out, so timing issues aren’t really an excuse (although this was after I took the initiative to being with, by re-writing etc.)

      Cheers as ever for your insight Susie 🙂 It’s given me a lot to consider. What do you think about the idea of having an online repository dedicated for Master’s level research? It can just be open submission, where students can deposit their thesis/dissertation after completion without the whole hubbub of formal publication and have their data etc openly available to the public..? Presuming that they don’t want to publicise, of course.

      Jon

      1. Hi Jon,

        Yes, you’re right that Rick was only 1 student out of 20. But I read other projects from that year that were not good enough to be published. Being cynical (for a change) Masters courses are run for lots of reasons, one being that they earn lots of money for the department they’re run out of. I’m not saying this is necessarily true of the NHM/Imperial one, since I have no idea of the finances, but it’s certainly true for other institutions, departments and masters courses. That means that people on the courses are not necessarily as high-quality as you might hope: one reason why such courses don’t always produce masters projects of really high quality. I’m glad to hear that you are getting help with writing your project up: great news.

        The online repository is an interesting idea, but the question is who would use it? I am seriously skeptical of using other people’s data in my own research, because I don’t know why they collected it, how they collected it or what protocols they used. If it were data collected for a masters project that had never been published, the methodology has not even been peer-reviewed. There’s no quality control. I’d be concerned about using anything from it. So what would be the point of it?

        1. I didn’t want to say publicly, but considering no-one from the course probably reads this, a lot of the studies were not of ‘sufficient quality’ from my year, in terms of writing and/or data collection/analysis. That probably includes mine, but I’ve worked since to get it up to scratch (not that much effort really), hopefully!

          Funny you should mention it actually, this year the course lost *all* external funding! That’s 8 full NERC scholarships removed. I’ve got no idea how the students are funding it this year, considering the cost of the fees and London living (it cost me ~£20k total last year, part funded, part loan), but the course is still as popular as ever. So this means the course has become a case of not who is right for it, but who can afford it. Would be interesting to see how this effects the quality of the research.

          The online database is just one of those fleeting ideas I had last night before drifting off, and I need to think about/discuss the idea more in the future. Good points though – I’d like to think students/researchers included that with data when it’s written up! I guess the peer-review would come from whoever looks at it post-submission to the hypothetical repository, similar to Figshare etc. It would be better to have data that could potentially be of use, and available, than no data at all. And it’s not just the data either, it’s also the new perspective that a student can offer on a particular topic, and the critique of previous literature. This idea needs beer.

  9. Can anybody help me with the question I faced. If I decide to publish my Masters Dissertation, may there be a problem with self-plagiarizm. How much my article must differ from my dissertation? There will be same results, of course. Can I use same phrazes?
    Thanks for the help.

    1. There’s no such thing as self-plagiarism! It’s your research, you can do what you want with it. You can always deposit the dissertation manuscript and the data in FigShare and then reference that if you’re worried 🙂

  10. That’s actually not true, you can plagiarise yourself. It all depends if your previous work is published or not. For example if you had published a paper with some data and then wanted to use it in a similar way for another paper you could potentially hit some self plagiarising issues. For a thesis though it shouldn’t matter, and people are usually more than happy for you to publish papers based on your thesis. It only becomes an issue once you have published papers with journals. I have seen some cases where people have blatantly self plagiarised, basically by publishing the same data twice. I am not sure what the repercussions are if you are caught but they can be relatively severe. But as I say don’t worry about it from your masters thesis, I am sure it will be fine.

  11. Thank you for the replies. Yes, I know that self-plagiarism is something real. And it is mentioned everywhere in plagiarism instructions. I think that I probably should mention somewhere in the end of article, that this work was based on my Masters dissertation.
    Again, thanks for the replies. I did not know about FigShare.
    And, very nice blog and very interesting this particular post about publishing masters’ works.

  12. I have recently completed my MSc and have been looking at how and where I can publish my work. I used the internet to obtain my data through a questionnaire and have had quite a lot of interest in what my results found and if people can reference my research. For this reason and the fact that some of my results suggest differences compared to previous research in the area I am looking to publish, however I have no idea where to start. Any information from anyone who knows about this or has previously published work before would be appreciated.

  13. Emma, first of all congratulations on completing an interesting and informative masters! Second, thank you for wanting to make sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks. Getting a publication on your record at this early stage can only help you down the line.

    I’ll be happy to do what I can to help you through the process. I’m no-one senior — just an honorary research associate at Bristol — but I do have a fair bit of experience in publishing my work.

    First up, you need to choose where to publish. At this point, if your work is any kind of science (you didn’t say), the obvious choice is PLOS ONE. Why?

    1. They publish your work open access, so anyone can read it.
    2. Although they have quite high publication fees, they WILL waive those fees.
    3. They have no limits on word-count, number of figures, etc., so you won’t need to compress your work. Let it be its natural length.
    4. It’s now a well-respected journal. (For those who care, its impact factor is 4-point-something, which is better than the great majority of society journals.)
    5. Its policy is to publish all submissions that are scientifically sound, without trying to guess at work’s likely impact and cherry-picking only the sexiest.
    6. It turns work around quickly — typically within a couple of months, and with no “in press” period (which can be YEARS at some journals!)

    Second choice at this point may be PeerJ, but it’s very new and has yet to establish the reputation of PLOS ONE. For someone publishing for the first time, PLOS ONE’s track-record makes it more appealing.

    You’ll need to look at the submission guidelines for your chosen journal (here are those for PLOS ONE), format your work accordingly, and then use the online submission system.

    I’m happy to take more detailed questions — this is a very 30,000-feet overview. You can leave more comments here (I will see them) or if you prefer email me on .

    One more important point to make: your manuscript is now a manuscript. The fact that it had a previous life as your masters thesis is no longer relevant. It gives you neither and advantage nor a disadvantage: from here on, your work stands on its own merit.

  14. In the process of writing an article from my MA-thesis… I just find it so hard and time consuming, especially as I have a full time job as well… Trying to get as much done as possible in the weekends, but it will take a while..! Not to mention that my thesis of 17 500 words will have to, somehow, be shrunken down into a mere 6000 words… But I find you post encouraging and will try and persevere! Good luck to you as well!

  15. I am really glad when i saw this article, am one of a lots of students that even had the zeal to publish their masters thesis, either high publication fees and other bureaucracy, and my question goes thus whats actually the difference between publishing someones work in Open Access Journals and other journals that demands high publication fess. And also it will be of great help to me and to other, if you can or anyone can list some great reputable Open Access journals. Thanks.

  16. Hey Jon,
    I just came across your post… I was looking for something else and this randomly appear in my search…. I looked at it because it was yours….
    To my surprise you talk about publishing your work…… and you are maybe right…..however I did not see my name in there…… lol I published my paper before we even graduated… I did my MRes with you… You even congratulated me for my paper!! Anyway, I hope you are well.!!

    Lopez Gutierrez, B., MacLeod, N., and Edgecombe, G.D. (2011). Detecting taxonomic signal in an under-utilised character system: geometric morphometrics of forcipular coxae of Scutigeromorpha (Chilopoda). Zookeys (156): 49–66.

    1. Oops, sorry Bea! I did mean largely from the MSc though – the MRes is slightly different I guess, as you’re geared towards doing more research as part of a leap towards continuing in academia, so publishing is more expected.

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