How Undergraduate Research Drives Science Forward

Unfair biases lead to the undervaluation of the role of such research in the advancement of knowledge, write David S. Rovnyak and George C. Shields.

July 7, 2017

When people discuss undergraduate research, they generally focus entirely around the benefits for students. These experiences are widely recognized to build critical-thinking skills, foster a foundation for the scientific process and create hands-on classroom experiences.

Although true, this mind-set undervalues undergraduate research as a catalyst for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Some in the scientific community have a skeptical view of undergraduate research. They may not doubt the benefits it offers students, but for true scientific innovation, it’s best to leave that to the flagships.

Such biases could not be more misguided. For example, a recent study by Michelle Kovarik, an assistant professor at Trinity College, documented 52 articles by primarily undergraduate institutions between 2009 and 2015 that made advances throughout analytical chemistry such as in spectroscopy, microfluidics and electrochemistry.

And a special issue of Polyhedron last August, edited by Robert LaDuca, Jared Paul and George Christou, presented over 60 articles that were based on undergraduate research and that reported scientific advances throughout inorganic chemistry.

Last year at Bucknell University, we surveyed the h-index, which measures the citations and influence of a scholar’s publications, of chemistry faculty from 22 highly selective undergraduate institutions to determine the impact of their research. We saw that assistant professors commonly had values between five and 15, with associate and full professors often increasing to high teens and even 20s, with a few faculty members even higher. Moreover, those are systematically low scores since we based them off a core collection (ISI Web of Science) to ensure reliable values. This limited sampling of significant research impacts points to much broader accomplishments by undergraduate institutions.

One of us, George Shields, published a paper on hydrogen bonding in the Journal of Computational Chemistry in 1993 with then Lake Forest College undergraduate Marcus Jurema, which has been cited 174 times to date. His articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society with Matt Liptak in 2001 and 2002 have been cited hundreds of times each. Both Jurema and Liptak were first authors on these three papers, and Jurema is a practicing physician, while Liptak is a faculty member in chemistry at the University of Vermont. Shields was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Award for Research With Undergraduates in 2015.

Some of the examples of impactful research that emerged from our study of h-indexes included investigators such as these below (all with strong, double-digit h-index values):

  • Furman University's Lon Knight was the fourth recipient of the same award from the American Chemical Society, in 1989. He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed research papers in leading national and international journals, primarily with undergraduates as co-authors.
  • Elizabeth Stemmler at Bowdoin College is an expert in analytical chemistry, and has an active research program investigating negative ions and atmospheric pollutants.
  • Michelle Francl from Bryn Mawr College has an active undergraduate research program in physical, theoretical and computational chemistry.
  • Liliya Yatsunyk at Swarthmore College has a fascinating research area in structural biochemistry, where her undergraduate group is exploring the three-dimensional space occupied by quadruplex DNA and the interaction of G-quadruplex DNA with porphyrins.
  • And Cynthia Selassie leads undergraduates at Pomona College in a medicinal chemistry research program that includes leveraging her expertise in quantitative structure activity relationships.

Perhaps most impressive is that these impacts have been made despite undergraduate institutions facing some distinct challenges. In speaking with some of our colleagues over the years, several common concerns emerged.

For example, some researchers believed a manuscript was more likely to be declined from high-profile journals without review because of their institution. While speculative, some investigators perceived that if the same manuscript had been submitted under the name of their former Ph.D. laboratory, it would have more likely proceeded to peer review.

Also, researchers at undergraduate institutions have experienced negative feedback on grant applications and manuscripts that was not based on the findings or the data, but rather on the involvement of undergraduates. “This work can’t be done by undergraduates” is heard all too often.

We’ve heard it ourselves. For instance, David Rovnyak has received these comments from a reviewer on a grant: “This proposal provides no indication that participation in research significantly benefited these students.” The reviewer also said that undergraduates weren’t capable of doing the work specified. George Shields once had a reviewer write the shortest review possible -- “Typical undergraduate drivel” -- on a paper that was eventually accepted in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. He saw a project he had proposed in one of his grants that was denied funding completely carried out and published by a graduate student of one of the suggested reviewers of the grant about a year later. We add that this sort of prejudice appears to be more common for junior faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions, and as researchers in the field realize the quality of the work by an established faculty member at such an institution, these problems are minimized or disappear.

Valuable Strengths

Nevertheless, undergraduate institutions boast several strengths that others lack. User fees on instruments are not in the primarily undergraduate institution research model, as they would only limit student use and training on research equipment. Similarly, network and other utilities are provided at those institutions without charges as part of the commitment to training students through involvement in research. While research universities commit significant internal support to graduate education research, at undergraduate institutions all the internal research money is for the benefit of undergraduates.

Perhaps the most valuable strength is a low-stakes environment to foster publishing research. While many undergraduate institutions do include research expectations in faculty evaluation, teaching loads and high service commitments are priorities. Since faculty members are conducting research because they want to, rather than because they have to, undergraduate institutions actually value having fewer high-quality papers over a high rate of publishing.

Meanwhile, high-stakes publishing is coming under increasing scrutiny. Editors of the major medical journals Lancet and NEJM have expressed concern that high-stakes research has led to a culture in which a surprising percentage of medical studies are not trustworthy. Further, retraction rates can be higher in leading journals than in lower-tier journals.

Undergraduate institutions also offer the ability to focus on fundamental research at a time when grants and funding are offered with the expectation of specific and highly applied returns on investment. Recently, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report noted that public funding for basic inquiry has dropped significantly in research institution, a result they feel has greatly damaged innovation in the United States.

In contrast, undergraduate institutions feel less pressure to create intellectual property, spawn start-up companies or partner with the private sector. Instead, these valued outcomes can and do happen organically, rather than out of obligation.

A great strength of American higher education is the diversity of the institutional types. Undergraduate colleges and universities should not try to replicate all types of research being done in other types of research settings. As research contributions from undergraduate institutions continue to grow, we in our own research and in observing many of our colleagues notice an increasing trend of strong cooperation between researchers at undergraduate institutions and at Ph.D.-granting institutions and national laboratories, which leverages the respective strengths of these environments.

For instance, Shields and Brooks H. Pate, at the University of Virginia, have established a strong collaboration that has resulted in four publications on small water clusters since 2012, including two in Science. This collaboration, instigated by Pate, is built on a strong foundation of mutual respect, and was only possible because of the previous highly cited work of Shields and his undergraduate researchers.

Similarly, since 2012, Rovnyak has published four papers in close collaboration with researchers at Ph.D.-granting institutions and one with colleagues at a research hospital, where all but one featured contributions of undergraduate researchers. Together, this diversity of institutions is needed to drive scientific discovery.

Interestingly, an additional trend is that a number of faculty members who recently joined primarily undergraduate colleges and universities shared with us that they perceived more freedom to pursue their research endeavors than at other types of research institutions.

It is discouraging, however, that a less-than-friendly competition still exists, marked by biases that tangibly hinder the development of talented faculty members who are growing impactful research programs in primarily undergraduate institutions. And it should be considered also that the same environments that value incorporating undergraduates into research also propel those students into graduate programs at a higher rate per capita than research universities, leading to the next generation of top scientists in the country.

Instead of a competition, we should value the distinct contributions of both predominantly undergraduate and research institutions to advancing discovery, and how they collectively come together as a cohesive whole in the American higher education system. Undergraduates are more than the scientists of tomorrow. They’re also making an impact today.

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David S. Rovnyak is a professor of chemistry at Bucknell University. George C. Shields is provost and a professor of chemistry at Furman University.

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