At some point during their undergraduate career, most psychology majors are required to conduct an empirical research project and write a paper based on that research. Obviously, this must be something that faculty find inherently useful and important for their students to do. There is a great deal that can be learned in this exercise, even if the exercise ends there. There is, however, the potential to get even more out of the experience after the study is completed and the grade is assigned. That is, there may be some real benefits to dusting off that paper and trying to get it published in a journal or presented at a conference. To that end, I will discuss (a) why students should resurrect that paper or not let it die in the first place (i.e., the benefits); (b) what students should consider before bringing that paper back to life (i.e., the costs); and (c) some resources and suggestions to help students decide what options are available for their paper's new life.
I require students in my Experimental Psychology class to conduct an independent research project. Early in the semester, I tell them that in previous semesters, students have presented superior papers at conferences or published them in journals, and that this could be a goal they set for themselves as they work on their project. Of course, I realize that publishing and/or presenting will sound more like a threat than a motivating reward to many students, but I still think most students are intrigued by the idea that their paper might be considered for publishing or presenting.
For students who decide to pursue publication or presentation, there is much that can be learned. Publishing is especially known for its strange rules and procedures. A student might hear an instructor talk about rejection rates or publication lag time, but one can really understand that concept only after anxiously waiting six months to hear that the paper is not publishable in that journal. There is also much that can be learned by presenting at conferences. There are very few jobs in the world where all one has to do is conduct research and write about it, and never have to tell anyone else what one has found. Communication skills—both writing and speaking—may be the most important skills students should be learning in college.
Finally, publishing or presenting one's research provides the added benefit that it looks good to potential employers and graduate schools. Patricia Keith-Spiegel (1991) surveyed psychology graduate school admissions committees on what they were looking for in candidates. She concluded that "research experience—as a research assistant or, even more so, work on a project that resulted in an authorship credit on a paper presentation or article published in a scholarly journal—is extremely impressive in applicants to both scientific and traditional clinical programs" (p. 86).
Costs and Cautions
In addition to the benefits of "doing something" with a project after it is completed, there are also some costs that one should consider, or at least cautions one should take. First, not every paper will—or should—be published. In fact, not all "A" papers will get published. This is not just because the standards of publication are so much higher than the standards in a course; it is because the standards are also different. Research papers are typically graded on a number of criteria, including writing style, the development of logical hypotheses, appropriate statistical analyses, clear discussion of both the contributions and limitations of the study, etc. These criteria are also important to a journal editor. But journals also look at the significance of the results. Journals expect a contribution to the literature, and nonsignificant results are typically not a big contribution in their eyes. This is no fault of the researcher; it is simply that there is a limited amount of space available to publish the results of research, and the competition for that space is high. In addition, life is not always fair. Rejection rates are high for psychology journals, often between 50% to 90%.
A second consideration before the decision to pursue publication is whether one has the time to put into publishing it. The time it takes to get a paper into publishable shape is always longer than is anticipated. After that, there is typically several months of waiting to hear back from the publisher whether the paper was accepted. Even if it is accepted, it is rarely accepted without requests for further revisions.
If the decision is to pursue publication or presentation, there are several options. I have categorized the possible outlets for student research into four groups, including the advantages and disadvantages of each, and references for specific outlets within each of these four categories.
Professional journals look great on a resume; they really impress graduate schools. But they also have high rejection rates. One question is, which journal? Journals in Psychology (1997), published by the APA, was developed to address this concern. It contains entries for over 300 journals, including publisher, editor, editorial policy, notes on submissions, number of subscribers, acceptable articles, and rejection rate.
By the way, authors cannot submit a paper to two journals simultaneously. Authors can, however, submit a paper to a second journal after being rejected by the first journal. Also, a paper can be submitted to a journal after presenting it first at a conference. Many researchers present their papers at a conference first, get feedback and suggestions there, and then submit the paper to a journal.
Presenting at professional conferences has the same advantage as professional journals--it looks very good on a resume. Additionally, acceptance rates are much higher for conferences than they are for journals, and the wait to find out whether the research was accepted is not as long. Most regional and national meetings are listed in Eye on Psi Chi (see page 37 of this issue), and each month in American Psychologist, APA Monitor, and APS Observer. These meetings are also listed on the Psi Chi website, along with information on student paper competitions at regional and national meetings.
Student journals are typically published to provide a forum for student research. Although these are not quite as prestigious as other journals, they do have higher acceptance rates, and they still look very good on a resume and application. Division 2 of the APA (Teaching of Psychology) has a website that lists these journals (www.lemoyne.edu/OTRP/otrpresources/otrp_undergrad.html). One of the journals listed there is the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research (see the Psi Chi website, www.psichi.org, for information about the Psi Chi Journal).
Finally, there are student conferences. This may not be the most prestigious of the options, but may be the best option for many student papers. First, it has a higher acceptance rate than the other options. Second, any sign of research is looked upon favorably by admissions committees. And third, it is energizing to present with and to students who are in similar situations as oneself.
Undergraduate research conferences were designed expressly to give students a chance to report their work (Palladino, Carsrud, Hulicka, & Benjamin, 1982). Typical undergraduate psychology research conferences cover just a few states (or less) and range from quite small (e.g., 15 presentations altogether) to very large (e.g., 250 presentations). Virtually all require that a faculty member sponsor the student's paper. In most conferences, a panel of judges rates the submissions, and the best ones are selected for the final program. Faculty members serve as moderators for panels of 15-minute student presentations on related topics, and presentations typically report on empirical research, although some conferences also accept theoretical papers. Many of the presentations come from class projects and independent study efforts. Conferences often have a featured speaker and a group meal or general social event (Carsrud, Palladino, Tanke, Aubrecht, & Huber, 1984; Keith-Spiegel, 1991). Many of the undergraduate research conferences are listed annually in Teaching of Psychology (the journal published by Division 2) and on the Psi Chi website (www.psichi.org/conventions/home.asp), which is updated regularly.
Finally, one's own college or university may provide—or wish to develop—local meetings to showcase meritorious student work. Psychology departments may put together an annual student research presentation meeting, complete with a guest speaker or faculty-led symposium.
Whatever the decision is regarding whether to pursue publishing or presenting a paper, the first person students should talk with is their instructor or faculty advisor. If the advice is to pursue publication or presentation, there are still many more decisions to be made concerning where the paper should be submitted, what changes need to be made, and how authorship credit should be assigned. On the other hand, the advice might be to not pursue publication or presentation. Undergraduate—and sometimes graduate—research papers are often conducted with time limits and are typically the first attempts at research. In research, we call those pilot studies. Research that is not published might still be a good starting point for an independent study the next semester to do it "right" the next time.
American Psychological Association (1997). Journals in psychology: A resource listing for authors (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Carsrud, A. L., Palladino, J. J., Tanke, E. D., Aubrecht, L., & Huber, R. J. (1984). Undergraduate psychology research conferences: Goals, policies, and procedures. Teaching of Psychology, 11, 141-145.
Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Palladino, J. J., Carsrud, A. L., Hulicka, I. M., & Benjamin, L. T. (1982). Undergraduate research in psychology: Assessment and directions. Teaching of Psychology, 9, 71-74.
Author note. An earlier version of this paper was presented in a Psi Chi panel, "Encouraging Student Research," at the 70th annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in Providence, R.I., in April 1999.
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to: Jack Powell, Department of Psychology, University of Hartford, West Hartford, CT 06117-1599. E-mail may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.