Why and how Master’s students should publish their research

This is an updated post from one I published a while back on my old blog at: http://wp.me/p22pR3-2F – as I’ve developed as a scientist, I thought it would be good to share these thoughts in the emergence of new information and experiences. The comments on the older post are worth a quick read. This was originally posted at: http://blogs.egu.eu/palaeoblog/2013/04/18/should-masters-students-publish-their-research/

In the UK, many if not most Master’s students do not publish their postgraduate research. I’ve been informed by several people that in US-based institutions, Master’s students are continuously encouraged to publish their material by their supervisors and institutions.

Two years ago, I undertook an MSc 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 research published. I have been informed that from at least the previous two years, this is pretty much the normal rate of publication! 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. This is especially the case, I feel, for Master’s students who wish to progress in academia, particularly through PhD research. Papers are academic currency, and the sooner you start accumulating wealth, the better.

Publication of Master’s research, anecdotally, seems more often to be the exception and not the rule. When it comes down to it, there are 5 options really that students have with respect to publication:

  1. They simply choose not to
  2. Their work is not sufficient for publication
  3. They attempted to publish, and failed (rejected after submission)
  4. They published formally in a peer-reviewed journal
  5. [This is the new one] They can make the manuscript and data available through other methods

I’m currently re-writing my own thesis (second Master’s) into a manuscript that is acceptable for publication, with guidance from my supervisor, Norm MacLeod. Admittedly, at the time of submission, the research was probably somewhere around option 2 – I’ve since done some additional analyses and found some cool stuff. This should be submitted to PLoS One shortly. This has taken some extra time, alongside my PhD, but to get a peer-reviewed publication out of it, it’s worth doing I think as an early career researcher (and I’m sure many others would agree).

The NHM in London is a world-class research institution, and all research conducted here should be published in some form, regardless of the academic level of the person conducting it. To shrug off this responsibility is detrimental to science. This is especially so if destructive processes are involved (e.g., DNA extraction and sequencing in invertebrates), as this research can never be replicated again.

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

There are alternatives to peer-reviewed publication. For this process, you have to go through many steps such as manuscript reformatting, peer review and possible rejection. Instead of this long-winded, and often extremely time-consuming process, you can submit your data and thesis, as it is, to open online archives. The only time this takes is that required to make an account (free), and upload the research, in raw formats (in most cases). For example, I recently uploaded my first Masters thesis, and accompanying data to FigShare, and the manuscript again to Arxiv to increase the visibility of the research. Since uploading to FigShare, both items have had over 600 views together, which is substantially more than it would have sitting on my hard-drive as a pdf, and I’m not sure about arxiv as they don’t have any metrics like that. This has made the research open and available, and if someone wants to use it, they can freely, with the one caveat that they’ll have to review the value and quality of it. Any scientist who think this is a negative step under-values themselves and the role of peer-review.

For a PhD, it usually helps to have publication experience, the best opportunity of which is with your Master’s thesis. On the other hand. if you’re not planning on going into further education after course completion, why should you publish? Well, you don’t have to follow the ‘traditional route’ – the above is a time-easy alternative, and is a sure way of making your research open and accessible. Supervisors can provide additional advice on this, I’m sure.

So Master’s-level research appears, to me, a severely under-tapped source of scientific research in the UK. 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 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. If, however, you don’t want to pursue this route, you still have a duty to make your research accessible, and now with tools like FigShare and Arxiv, that take just minutes instead of weeks or months to publish with, there’s really no excuse any more. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the fruits of so much labour from young scientists was made free for people to read and use, instead of being archived into dusty institutional shelves.

Post note: Carl Boettiger made a similar call recently too, which I was only made aware of after publishing this post: http://haldanessieve.org/2013/01/14/consider-public-archiving-for-your-dissertation/

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