What was the activity?
Reading and understanding journal papers is a key part of a degree programme, yet few students (especially undergraduate ones) will have experience of writing their own paper during their studies. Creating their own paper within the author parameters of a journal provides a greater understanding of the challenges academics face in writing-up their research for publication. It also gives students practice in summarising their findings, presenting information using normal scientific headings, writing abstracts or summaries and aims, and creating correctly presented Harvard reference lists.
As part of an ecology course, year 3 BSc students are asked to carry out secondary research on a species at risk due to environmental change. For their submission, they are required to write up their findings as a four page published academic paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology (Gaillard et al., 2022a).
Students are given the author guidelines (Gaillard et al., 2022b) with some amendments – to satisfy student didactic requirements – and the final submission is presented as though a published paper in the journal. This includes an Abstract or Summary and Keywords at the beginning, with the rest of the paper (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, Conclusions and References) being in two columns as per the published papers in the journal. Students have autonomy on the choice of species but are required to have at least two graphics in the final paper (this is to gain experience of labelling graphics correctly and ensure referencing to the source in the graphic title). Since this is secondary research, the assessment also provides extensive experience of referencing since the students will be writing about the research of others. Although font size and type are stated within the author requirements, students are allowed (where applicable) to reduce the font size of the reference list to enable detailed written content to be provided in the body of the paper.
How did it impact students?
Bethan: student feedback over the years has been overwhelmingly positive with the case study paper being regarded as a meaningful assessment and completely different from what is required on other courses e.g., “[I] now realise how much work goes into writing a paper”, “I developed key skills in summarising information”, “it was exciting to see my name on a paper although unpublished”, “totally different from the usual essays and exams”. Nevertheless, some students do find the strict requirements of the guidance challenging, particularly the need to summarise information to fit into the four pages! For some students, the realisation that there is a paucity of data available for their chosen species is sobering, especially when the outlook for the species is bleak; only one student to date has chosen a species which couldn’t be used (the Northern White Rhino).
Diana: This assessment helped me explore the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that impact conservation, and the advantages and disadvantages of different conservation approaches. Although the assignment requirements did not leave room for interpretation (being author guidance for a journal paper), they nevertheless provided a start and end point which helped me shape the information I gathered around an academic standard. The requirements of the assessment also underlined the importance of the quality of the content and the way in which it is presented. An overwhelming amount of literature was available for my chosen species (Aquilaria malaccensis), so the ability to summarise the information was a key skill I developed. In addition I utilised and improved my research and analysis skills regarding different types of media, in other words, from scientific articles, government publications, and legal frameworks to media campaigns. Overall, this assessment refined and improved my secondary research skills by providing precise guidelines that can be applied to future work.
Any advice for others?
The author guidelines for journal submissions can be extensive so these do need to be amended to suit the student level (in other words, undergraduate, or postgraduate). It is also easier to specify page length rather than word count since the choice of graphics can impact the space available.
Gaillard, J-M, Sanders, N, Lancaster, L and Evans, D. (eds.) (2022) Journal of Animal Ecology. Available at: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/13652656. (Accessed: 15 January 2022)
Gaillard, J-M, Sanders, N, Lancaster, L and Evans, D. (eds.) (2022) Author Guidelines. Journal of Animal Ecology. Available at: https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/hub/journal/13652656/author-guidelines. (Accessed: 15 January 2022)