This post is by Professor Simon Lightfoot, Pro Dean for Student Education and Professor of Politics, University of Leeds and Kate Petherbridge, Press Manager, White Rose University Press
Open Access (OA) is a key issue for Higher Education (HE), and is often discussed in the context of funding and compliance. The main drivers behind the current growth of OA publishing are seen as financial, and so OA is often viewed as a tick-box exercise to show how research outputs meet funding body or REF requirements.
There is more to OA than the stick of compliance, however. OA removes barriers preventing access to important scholarship. It can increase readership and engagement. It removes barriers that stop research reaching its widest possible audience, and – through liberal licensing – it also lets published research seed further research far more readily. This facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration across both distance and time.
OA makes research available to a global audience, with internet access the only requirement. This is important for research at all levels, with or without supporting funding. OA outputs surface HE’s contribution to knowledge and culture. It illustrates the relevance of HE to communities that have traditionally not been able to access the work done within Universities. The need for instantly accessible, high-quality information from reliable sources is ever increasing, given the growing range of sources now available online. Sharing current research can only lead to better informed debate, both in particular areas of focus, and in terms of the relevance, contribution and role of HE.
Why is publishing UG work through OA important?
Undergraduate research is now central to many degree courses, and the new areas these researchers look at, perhaps enabled by the freedom to pursue areas not tied to funding, can be the start of research that they pursue through the next phase of their academic careers. Their research can be of great worth, and be of interest to the academic community and wider public. It can be as innovative, as high quality and as relevant as other research outputs (and can be more so).
Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that UGs are the career academics of the future. While not all UGs go into careers in academia, almost all career academics will have begun as undergraduates. Providing early and supportive routes into publishing for these (very) Early Career Researchers, can only benefit them as they pursue their careers. It also speaks to HE’s broader commitment to pedagogy (rather than simply to teaching), and gives recognition to the quality of work that can be produced by someone looking at an area with new eyes and a fresh perspective.
It’s unusual to see UG research featured in journals, however. It’s not often seen as within scope. Some institutions have in-house UG journals, but these don’t always have a selective and competitive peer review process, and often have no visibility beyond the home institution. While these can be open journals in that they exist on open webpages, they may not have the necessary editorial structures and policies to qualify for the journal indexing sites that aid so significantly in dissemination to a wider audience.
Creating access to UG research as a driver
This drive to bring high-quality UG research to a wider audience was a key element in the inception of the Undergraduate Journal of Politics and International Relations (UJPIR), and in making it an OA journal. UJPIR came about after a moment of epiphany. Reading an UG dissertation as external marker, the quality of the research presented followed Simon Lightfoot home – almost literally. The dissertation was on street furniture, the adoption of designs that prevent people sleeping on it, and the cultural drivers and implications of this change. Reading this dissertation changed the way Simon viewed the city environment, and on his way home he looked at the street furniture with fresh eyes and new appreciation of the politics behind it. And it struck him that he was one of only a small handful of people who would ever have chance to read that piece of research. Simply because it had been done at UG level. This was frustrating for Simon, both as an academic in the field of Politics and International Relations, and also as a teacher dedicated to supporting the rounded development of students at all levels.
The realisation that UG research deserves to be available and accessible widely stayed with Simon. He felt that UG research should be shared across academic communities and beyond. If it wasn’t supported by journals currently publishing in his area, there needed to be a dedicated journal focused on this level of research. UJPIR was born- well, conceived at least.
What UJPIR publishes, and how
UJPIR publishes high quality, peer reviewed research articles from UGs as Early Career Researchers. It takes submissions nationally and internationally. The UJPIR website has more information about the scope of the journal and the submission and selection process. What UJPIR doesn’t do is publish UG theses or dissertations. A key part of the ethos behind UJPIR is helping UG researchers understand the work needed to produce a research article for publication from a piece of academic work for assessment. These are different outputs for different purposes, and this can be the most challenging aspect for UG authors publishing for the first time.
UJPIR has a rigorous peer review process, and one of the elements that reviewers focus on is if this transition from thesis to article has been successful or if more work is needed. Reviewers are encouraged to give the same level of feedback they normally would but with the awareness that this is likely to be the first time this author has been through the peer review process. This can make reviewing for UJPIR a very rewarding experience as these authors – and their articles – can benefit so significantly from it.
Is it worth doing?
Well, yes. The reasons and the benefits discussed above are significant. Further evidence that it is worth doing is given by how the articles are used. The top UJPIR article has been viewed/downloaded over 2,500 times in 18 months since publication. The top three average over 2,250 views/downloads. This shows there is an audience for this research and that it deserves to be made available beyond the handful of people who would have seen this otherwise.
The OA UJPIR model, of high-quality, peer reviewed research presented to the world without barrier, seems a very good way of surfacing UG research. It involves investment in both time and funding to support this, which is difficult to justify in our compliance-driven environment. However, in terms of investment in the current student body, in engagement and relevance, and in the academic community of the future, this seems a very good deal.