Student Voice

The Power and Potential of Undergraduate Research Journals

Emily Kinder was a BILT Student Fellow in 19/20 working on the theme of Students as Researchers through which she established Bristol’s first undergraduate research journal.

Back in January, I took part in a (virtual) conference organised by the Society of Undergraduate Humanities Publications (SUHP). SUHP was founded by the Yale Historical Review, an undergraduate research journal from Yale University. SUHP’s aim is to create a global consortium of undergraduate research journals, allowing universities from across the world to share ideas, publishing practices and research. I hadn’t heard of SUHP until they reached out asking if Bristol’s undergraduate research journal would like to join. I was thrilled at the possibility to engage with journals across the world and excited to connect with the students who ran them, so I accepted.

The SUHP conference was attended by a wide range of university journals, with student representatives from across America, the UK, Europe and Australia. The four-day conference consisted of a mix of talks, panels, discussions and socials. Professor Charlie Beckett gave a thought-provoking talk about how AI technologies are changing journalism, a group of panelists discussed the process of communicating research to broad audiences, and we socialised with other students during the amusingly named ‘Nosh and Network’.  It was both inspiring and exciting to see how popular undergraduate research journals are across America, and interesting to hear other UK universities coordinate their own journals. The sense of a shared mission, to empower and encourage undergraduate research, led to discussions about potential collaborations, not just nationally but globally, too. However, one of the most interesting things I took from the SUHP conference, and the one I want to share with you here, is the power and potential of undergraduate research journals.

Last year, as a Student Fellow, I set up Bristol’s first undergraduate research journal, and the response from students was far greater than we were expecting. This year’s Student Fellows are not only running the journal again, making it bigger and better, but they are also pioneering the Festival of Undergraduate Research, showing the momentum this project already has. As a relatively new journal, however, it was fascinating to hear the ideas and problems that other universities have had with their long-running publications.

There were many big questions at the conference concerning gatekeeping research, principally – is research more than just writing a traditional academic paper? The answer: it’s up to us. Undergrads will continue to see research as synonymous with academic papers if that is all our undergraduate research journals publish. But, if we make that first step, by encouraging a more diverse and eclectic range of papers, then the idea of what we mean by ‘research’ grows and grows. The representatives from Yale university discussed their experiences, as they have experimented with submissions applying academic approaches to popular culture, or pieces that push the definition of research further by taking the form of a poem or a more informal blog. They even collaborated with an ex-prisoner to write a sociology paper about the prison system in America. Research doesn’t have to mean a traditional academic paper. Our undergraduate journal last year contained a poem written by a Classics student, complete with a commentary. If we publish a variety of submissions, we encourage more undergraduates to challenge what ‘research’ really means.

But, with this power to shape and influence comes responsibility. At the conference, we also discussed the importance of publishing research by an inclusive range of students, such as LGBTQ+ and BAME students.

In America, writing for an undergraduate research journal is quite a big deal – it opens up scholarship and postgraduate opportunities for students and paves the way for a future in academia. Therefore, if undergraduate journals do not make a conscious effort to publish works by underrepresented writers, do they play a part in the perpetuation of what is already present in academia, the predominance of straight, white, male researchers? By ensuring they publish research by a diverse range of students, undergraduate journals present those students with opportunities to progress in their field of academia, opportunities they may not previously have come across. It is exciting that this group of undergraduate research publications, run by students across the world, are thinking not only about celebrating and empowering undergrad research, but about how that can have a tangible impact on students’ lives going forward.

However, zooming the lens out even further, undergraduate research journals don’t just have the ability to present students with opportunities in relation to academia. Some of the journals represented at the conference are huge enterprises. Not only do they have editors and peer-reviewers, but they also have students responsible for their social media, marketing, comms, finance and a whole host of other things. The potential for students to gain experience in a wide range of areas, suitable for progression to a number of careers, is vast.

What I took away from the SUHP conference, and what I hope you’ll take away from this blog, is that the possibilities of undergraduate research journals are endless. Empowering undergraduate students, equipping them with transferable skills not only suitable for an academic career, but any career, offering opportunities for funding and further study, enabling connections and collaborations with students from across the world, the list goes on. Taking part in the SUHP conference inspired me and filled me with hope and excitement about the potential of Bristol’s own undergraduate research journal. I can’t wait to see where it goes next!

Find out more about plans for this year’s BILT Student Research Journal

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