It has recently become apparent (to me) that Master’s students do not publish their research here in the UK, or at least not enough.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:
- They simply chose not to
- Their work was insufficient for publication
- They attempted to publish, and failed
- 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).
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