To Publish or Not? (Part 1 of 2)

In an earlier post, I stated that I rarely mentor students’ independent research projects. Instead, I have begun involving students in my own research, a collaboration that increases my research productivity and provides students a highly engaged learning environment. For these same reasons, I answer the question “to publish or not?” with a decisive yes. With few exceptions, every research project I undertake with an undergraduate is targeted for publication, usually with a specific journal in mind.

Before I elaborate the benefits of this approach, it might be useful to consider the potential downsides.

First, there is the risk that top journals will not recognize scholarship that is co-authored with an undergraduate. Although I have no direct evidence that this is the case, let’s assume for the moment that it is true. At many of the institutions where German Studies or European Studies professors work, journal status—often defined through a combination of selectiveness, reach or influence, and related criteria—is a factor in tenure and promotion decisions. An untenured assistant professor might therefore lean towards publishing solo in a top journal rather than publishing with a student in a second-tier journal (assuming that this top-tier bias against undergraduate scholarship is real, and that it does not exist among second-tier journals). Another, potentially more fruitful approach would be to begin a dialogue with one’s department chair and dean about how the institution values undergraduate research. It could be that the institution already values publications co-authored with students, or that it is ready to move in that direction.

As a tenured associate professor at a teaching institution, my decision is easier. Although my institution does weigh journal quality in tenure and promotion decisions, teaching and mentoring are weighted more heavily, with the result that I don’t have to worry too much about publishing in first-tier versus second-tier journals. A solid track record of scholarship generated through sustained undergraduate mentoring will pass muster in my promotion application. To put it coarsely, the fact that I co-authored with undergraduate students would offset the fact that I might have published in less selective journals.

Second, there is the concern that the undergraduate research arrangement exploits students in order to promote the faculty member’s career—that students are treated as cheap intellectual labor. I address this risk by drawing up a contract outlining roles and responsibilities of students and the faculty mentor, which I then file with the undergraduate research office. That contract states that although I am the lead researcher and primary author, students’ contributions are valued and recognized. Ideally, this recognition is achieved by listing students as co-authors. (The institutional review board at my institution holds that anyone who is significantly involved in project design, data collection, or writing should be considered a co-author.) In cases where it is not possible to list students as co-authors, the contract states that students will be recognized in a footnote on the first page. Treating the students as co-authors shifts the nature of the student-teacher relationship towards a more collaborative, team-oriented, mentor-mentee relationship, mitigating concerns about exploitation.

In short, when deciding whether to publish work that is co-authored with undergraduates, faculty members must think about potential downsides, including journals’ recognition of such work and the risk of unfair exploitation of students. With appropriate steps, however, these concerns can be satisfactorily addressed. In my next post, I’ll speak to the advantages of trying to publish together with undergraduate students.

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