Class projects as publishable research?


Have you thought of collecting real, publishable, data as a part of lab that you’ve taught? Specifically, is it workable to use a single lab activity, conducted over multiple sections over multiple years, to build a dataset to ask a pending research question?

It sounds like a workable idea, which could be good for students, good for the professor, and good for Science. But I’ve never gotten it to work, despite reasonably-sized ambitions.

Here are several rationales, or rationalizations, for using the laboratory of an upper-division undergraduate speciality course as a vehicle for actual research:

  • Students learn more about science when they’re doing original projects that don’t have a predetermined outcome.
  • If students are doing actual research as a part of their classes, this can result in more engagement. It’s harder to engage students when you already know the answer, and you’re asking students to just discover the same answer that everybody else has found.
  • If it’s my university, this practice would get prized by administration as one of the ten official High Impact Practices. It’d look good as part of the documentation in a tenure/promotion file.
  • If you’re teaching a bunch, then this represents an actual opportunity to collect original research data, which otherwise might be hard to squeeze into the schedule. (In other words, this approach leverages teaching responsibilities to get research done.)
  • If you are looking to conduct a project that involves long-term data, then the opportunity to collect information year after year can result in a cool and useful dataset that you otherwise wouldn’t be collecting independently.

Here’s why it didn’t work for me:

  • There were often inconsistencies in the collection of data from group to group, section to section, and year to year — not all of which can be adequately tracked.
  • Even when collected under identical protocols, it’s really hard to feel confident in the quality of the data.
  • I found the activities were *not* engaging, because if the students exercised the latitude to adapt the experiment, then their data would not be able to be used as part of a broader project.

More generally, here are drawbacks that push against the rationales:

  • If the students are learning about the process of science, that means that they need to be able to develop their own questions. If the professor designs an experiment in which the students aren’t making decisions about the question, experimental design, or methods, then the students are being deprived of an opportunity to learn.
  • From the student perspective, this is a cookbook lab. And if the research is being done well, then the actual conduct of the experiment should feel cookbook, too. You could minimize this effect by having students add their data to the data collected from previous years, which definitely lets them feel like a part of an inquiry-based project, but ultimately this approach makes the students’ role as data-collecting machine, and not a designer of experiments. This isn’t a crime — and many labs are run with rote protocols — but if students can analyze data from an experiment that they designed themselves, they’ll learn even more.
  • I think this kind of approach might get budding PIs off on the wrong foot. Because I’m betting this strategy is often appealing to newish faculty who are still finding their feet at teaching-centered universities, then they might be investing effort into a research avenue that might not pay off — that is, if the strategy isn’t workable.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the philosophy of being efficient with one’s time — to collect research data while teaching. However, I think that it’s rare that the major objectives of a laboratory course gel enough with the requirements of a publishable project. I’m sure in some fields, and some subfields, it might work more than others. I don’t want to compromise the value of a laboratory for the purpose of collecting publishable data, even if the students end up as authors. I’d rather use the lab for its traditional purpose, in this particular situation.

If the entire semester is designed around a single collaborative project that might get published, then that sounds mighty cool, but it’s nothing I’m planning to tackle anytime soon. As for the notion of using data from lab activities to do scholarship on the science of teaching and learning? That’s very apt, if that’s what floats your boat.

But it’s been quite a while since I’ve attempted to use undergraduate teaching assignments to collect publishable data. If any you’ve gotten this to work, I’d love to hear more about it.

19 thoughts on “Class projects as publishable research?

  1. When I teach plant ecology, I feel it is a necessity to collect “real” data in the field at each site rather than just go “look, see, identify”. They learned the plants easier if they have to “shake hands” with them collecting data. I never imagined the data to be publishable but they are responsible (each team assigned one of maybe 10 data sets that they helped collect the data) to write up a research report on the class data in the form of a primary paper. In hind site, perhaps after 30 years of visiting the same sites I might have had a data set on long term changes…but I do not trust the student data that much. My labs are about giving the students an understanding of the science of plant ecology. My students mostly identify as pre-meds. My role then is to make them responsible stewards of the natural world. About 4 of my students in 30 years have gone on to graduate school in ecology.

  2. Hi Terry – the class projects that have resulted in co-publications (or ongoing data-sets) with students have mainly been centered on our Tenerife field course where I have a lot more control over what the students do and how they collect the data. It’s important to make any such exercises simple and straightforward, and fairly fool proof data collection, e.g. measurements of plant size using strict criteria.

    Care needs to be taken over data quality, of course, but once you get a feel for a system it’s usually easy to see where errors have occurred and remove the data.

  3. I’ve tried using protist microcosm experiments several times as class projects in our upper level population ecology class, with the idea that they’d be publishable (or at least useful pilot experiments) if they worked. It only worked once (I got useful pilot data), in part for some of the reasons you identify and in part for reasons that are unique to microcosms.

    On the pedagogical side, I found that students did like doing real research rather than a cookbook exercise that was supposed to come out a particular way. Even if they hadn’t gotten to choose the question and design the experiment (I talked with them as a group about the process of choosing the question, the pros and cons of different experimental designs, etc.). The main risk was that the experiment wouldn’t work in the sense of generating interpretable data. When that happened, the students struggled to analyze the data, and writing it up was a less useful learning exercise for them.

  4. At LSU, we’ve actually had great luck with course-based undergraduate research experiences with a variety of different research projects. In fact, several of the projects have generated publishable data. We’re in the process of writing up a manuscript with suggested strategies to increase the success of such projects.

  5. In my undergrad genetics course, all students were required to do independent projects in the lab, either singly or in pairs. Students came up with their questions, designed their experiments, collected their data, and wrote a paper. Mine ended up getting published. The majority of the projects didn’t really work out, but students still learned a ton. And I think it’s reasonable to expect 90% of undergrad projects to not generate useful data.

    As for the prof picking the research question: you might look into some of the citizen science projects that have yielded useful data.

  6. One of the best examples I have seen of published student-collected data is from Ben Blonder and middle-school students. True, these types of projects are more like citizen science projects in the sense that the participant is simply collecting data and not designing the experiment on their own or writing up the results.

    BUT these data-collecting projects demonstrate how accessible science can be (and that publishable science can be done with materials around your house). This can be quite empowering and also humanizes science.

    So I agree that student-led experimental designs may not always work smoothly in a semester long time-frame, but I do see great value in guided data-collection type projects.

  7. Not quite the sort of thing you’re thinking of, but I have it on good authority that Hairston et al. 1968 Ecology (a microcosm experiment on diversity-stability relationships, with an all-star author list including John Vandermeer) was a graduate class project. The way I heard the story is that a bunch of grad students went to Nelson Hairston Sr. and said “We don’t want to take your graduate course, we want to do this experiment instead”, and Nelson said ok.

  8. Graduate students really do like this setup, though! For example, in a data analysis class I recently took, we were tasked with obtaining a public (or at least obtainable) dataset and analyzing it, as opposed to a canned dataset. Mine and a labmate’s project led to a collaboration which recently got RA funding for the labmate, and I know at least another group who is trying to get their analysis published. There’s boatloads of underutilized data out there begging to be published, which is good for students (provides motivation and creates a higher quality project), the course (so it feels useful and not like a distraction from “real work”), for the underfunded agencies producing the data, and for Science. This was a data analysis class, and I imagine it’s harder to get grad students to collect data (in fact this would likely go over very poorly), but I’d encourage other stats classes to use this model.

  9. Great discussion! I wonder if the discipline isn’t a major factor in whether working towards publishable data enhances or detracts from the student experience. Maybe field ecology and some aspects of computation biology lend themselves better to a publishable outcome than something like plant physiology or biochemistry – what do you think?

  10. I feel much the same was as you, and have now given up on expecting publications from undergraduate work. I also found that starting with that objective undermined my relationship with the students. If I gave them something that I thought was a nailed-on paper, it implied that a lot of time and mental effort had already been invested to plan it carefully. They probably felt additional pressure, and the disappointment when it didn’t work perhaps made me feel more critical of their efforts than was reasonable.

    I have published with undergraduates — and am preparing a couple more manuscripts this summer — but these have been serendipitous. The coincidence of a strong student (or group) and a project that works as planned is not something you can or should anticipate.

    One thing that concerns me is that I’ve seen a number of job ads over recent years that state ‘We expect you to conduct your research through undergraduate students’ or something similar, and the same sentiment expressed by applicants in their teaching philosophy statements. I think this is dangerous and sets people up to fail. A previous commentator said that 90% of student projects don’t generate publishable data. If they’re getting 10% that is (and worth the effort of publishing) then they’re doing a lot better than me.

  11. I agree with Markus. I teach at a small college and there is great pressure to include students in research (in all disciplines). Faculty with NSF grants here have that pressure doubled since NSF expects UG involvement in their projects. Students rarely have the time to commit to a project that has potential for publication or see the project to its end. The successful outcome of a publication with students involved is based on multiple years of students contributing small steps to a bigger question. The college is happy there are students names on the publication and the faculty is happy that they have a publication and can hope for continued grant support. Most of our students want “research” on their resume for medical school….very few are thinking of a science graduate school path.

  12. Just to clarify – I do work with undergraduates heavily for research. They are the engine of my research program and they generate most of the data. I don’t spend the entire summer in the rainforest, but they do. They own their own projects, as much as they would like to, and their development of researchers is a big priority for me. But I have a different student population than a lot of other small teaching institutions, which may not have as many students who are not interested in grad school, or have students with stronger economic prospects outside that option.

    Here’s more on how I think about training students:

    That said, should faculty be expected to mentor undergraduate researchers? I don’t think so, not necessarily, unless that’s an explicit part of the workload. That’s a whole other issue.

  13. I’ve taught a summer Collaborative Research in Atmospheric Sciences course at the University of Georgia four times (2006, 2009, 2011, 2013). The course satisfies a research/internship requirement for our Atmospheric Sciences Program at UGA. The class is usually composed of about 80% undergraduates, and the students work together in teams rather than one-on-one with the researcher, which is the primary model for undergraduate research at UGA. As a graduate student and a professor, I have never found the one-on-one model to work very well for me. This personal preference, combined with the tendency for undergraduates to be more team-oriented and gregarious than the stereotypical locked-away-in-the-lab-by-himself researcher, encouraged me to try a collaborative model starting in 2006.

    The course begin by discussing the nature of research itself, and then moves into actual research on a topic that I picked that is appealing to undergraduates and deals with an unsolved problem in our field (anything from aviation turbulence to precipitation forecasts to windstorms).

    We usually don’t finish a project during the eight-week summer term; at best, we usually get through data collection and some analysis. Students who stick with the project after the class ends, all the way through creation and submission and revision of a journal article, receive co-authorship. (I also did one very similar project that was not connected to a class, on tornado debris.) Very roughly, about 50% of the undergraduates stick it out all the way to co-authorship.

    So far, these efforts have led to 8 articles or book chapters published or in review at some of the top journals in my discipline, including the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (#1 impact factor in my discipline) and the Journal of Climate (#2 impact factor). A total of 43 current or former students have been co-authors on these eight publications, including 25 students who were undergraduates at the time the research was done. The tornado debris project became international news, appearing in over 450 newspapers worldwide, and was featured in a two-minute piece on NBC Nightly News.

    I’ll be teaching this course again this summer with approximately 10 students, including 9 undergraduates.

    I readily acknowledge that the most glaring weakness of this course is the lack of time and background for the students to have the Eureka! moment of choosing and exploring a topic of their own. However, I think nearly all of the participants would say that these research seminars have been beneficial to them, even if they didn’t go on to graduate school. I try to make up for this weakness by addressing topics in creativity and creative thinking at the beginning of the course. During the 2013 seminar, the director of UGA’s Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development (named for the world pioneer in creativity research, the late UGA professor Paul Torrance) spoke to the class, and we did some in-class exercises in creative thinking.

    During the summer 2015 seminar, I will be collaborating with a famed researcher from another university (who alerted me to this post) on a project we have wanted to pursue but haven’t had time on our own to finish. The students this summer will thus be in a very similar situation to the one that new graduate students often encounter: joining a project ‘already in progress’ and helping to complete it.

    I should note that no external funding has supported this effort. UGA has partly supported one of the seminars with a Summer Innovative Instruction internal grant.

    Oddly, I have had more success to date publishing research with these summer undergraduate/graduate student classes than with my own M.S. and Ph.D. students. M.S. students, in particular, tend to have just enough time and funding to finish the research, but then take a job elsewhere and leave the write-up to me. I have a teaching-intensive position at UGA and find it very difficult to go back to a student’s thesis to revamp it for publication amid all my other responsibilities (although doing theses in article form is helping). The guilt factor of letting an entire class down on a project is more compelling to me than writing up a thesis for publication on behalf of a former graduate student who shows no interest in doing it. Maybe I’m just not a very good graduate advisor.

    I hope that these experiences are useful to others.

  14. John, it sounds like the way you run this class is the way I run my research program, except for the ‘course’ part.

  15. Very interesting post, I appreciated the balanced presentation regarding undergraduate research in the classroom. Having similar experiences with this approach, I’m now using the Research Skill Development Framework (RSD) to better align my learning objectives with the research activities they are doing in the class. It has been very helpful for me to re-evaluate the purpose and assess the outcomes of research in the classroom.

  16. I suggest everyone check out the Ecology Research as Education Network: Their mission is: “To create a model for collaborative ecological research that generates high-quality, publishable data involving undergraduate students and faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs).”

    I’ve been a member/collaborator since it’s inception and great stuff is coming out of it.

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