Students as Authors: Why Students Should Publish Their Class Essays Online

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photo by sholeh

Summer is over, and that means that millions of students are heading back to Universities around the world.  Professors are preparing their syllabi and lectures, and students are getting ready for classes (read: spending hundreds of dollars on books).

Over the next eight months there will be hundreds of millions of essays written by university students, and graded by professors and teaching assistants (TAs).  What does that mean for student publishing? Well, not much. For the most part,  students do not publish their work, which makes the professors and TAs the sole readers of hundreds of millions of essays.  

What if these essays were published online for all to read and evaluate?  What if even 1/100th of them were published? This is not a rhetorical question for us, it is something that we wish to find out.  Something that we think should happen, and hope to help make happen. 

“Aren’t you worried about publishing student essays? Won’t many be bad?”

Arguably some of the essays are not so great, but that is true for all scholars, including distinguished professors.  Indeed, in 2004 Pinker wrote that academic writing is known to use “prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand,” and recently we’ve seen that even the underlying research is not as reliable as we would like. These problems are certainly not due to students. 

“Why publish student essays”

There are various reasons we think students should publish their essays with us. First, the limitations on scholarly publishing should never be monetary.  However, that is the case with many publishers, especially in the life sciences.  Sure, many journals may offer waivers, but it is an imperfect system that frankly discourages people from even trying to publish.  In various cases students are granted a partial or full waiver from publishers, but a waiver of even 50% may leave a student with a bill of 1,000+ dollars.  Libraries have been great for backing students publishing, but in order to get library funding you must show that your publication has been accepted and in order to get accepted you must agree to pay the publication fees before undergoing review.  Not to mention, libraries can’t afford to pay for thousands of students to publish under the current model. The whole system is complicated and a big hurdle to student publishing that basically keeps students, and their ideas, away from publishing.  We’ve eliminated that unnecessary hurdle by shifting review to an open post-publication model.

The second reason for encouraging students to publish their essays, and more importantly providing them a platform to do so, is that it is best to learn open practices early.  Learn to publish and review openly, and this will become the norm as the students become the next leaders.  This will foster the next generation of open scholars, which will collectively benefit the community and ensure more robust practices.

The third is that we need new ideas and viewpoints in science.  Historically many ideas have come from the young or people changing disciplines.  Why? Because looking at a problem in a different way after years and years of research often times can be very difficult, if not impossible.  A person can talk themselves out of new/different ideas because they know better.  Student’s may not know any better in many things and that's okay, in fact that may be quite beneficial.

How are we going to do it?

We are already doing it.  This fall a variety of professors from around the world plan to use The Winnower in their classrooms for student publishing. Here's what their syllabi read:

From Virginia Tech BIOL5854G:

“the paper is expected to be of publishable quality. As a new experiment in this course, students will be given the choice to publish their essays on The Winnower”

From Simon Fraser PUB401:

“You must submit your essay in the form of a post/publication on any website of your choosing. This may be your own blog, someone else’s blog, this site (email instructor for an account), The Winnower, or any other web-accessible location. Submit the URL to your essay on Canvas [a course management system].  The only condition for submissions is that they should be made available under a Creative Commons License.”

From Louisiana State University MC4971:

"The objective of these assignments is to produce publishable work. For each of the 7 assignments, the top (winning) article/essay will be submitted by Paige Jarreau (with your permission) to The Winnower, where it will receive a DOI and be archived as a permanent published essay!"

We hope that other professors/instructors will follow these classes lead and begin to encourage their own students to publish.  And students, don’t wait! Start publishing!

Questions? Just ask us!