Young Scientists Journal: a retrospective from a co-founder
Co-founder and mentor, Christina Astin revisits her early hopes for the journal and what has been achieved.
What does a young scientist look like? To many it’s a lab-coated woman or man in their early 30s. To me, a young scientist is still at school. A teenage scientist may not know as much science as a post-doctoral researcher, but she has oodles of curiosity and total freedom from that professional caution that can hamper creative thinking later on.
It surprises many that it is even possible to do original research whilst still at school. But WE know it’s possible because we publish it!
So, what skills did I hope, as co-founder, would be gained by school students writing up their research and having it published in a journal run by their peers?
The Young Scientists Journal: twin aims
In 2006 I had recently been appointed Head of Science at a prominent UK boarding school: The King’s School, Canterbury. I had a mission: to showcase scientific communication at its best, starting with my own students.
I knew of schools around the UK where students were carrying out original research, often guided by a charismatic teacher. Some schools are lucky enough to have radio telescopes, wind tunnels, electron microscopes and access to other impressive pieces of kit. Others were pioneering new discoveries with more modest means: a webcam in a bird box, or a computer and some genetic code. Were they publishing their results? Should they be? How? Where?
In conversation with Professor Ghazwan Butrous of the University of Kent, whose children were King’s School alumni, we hatched the idea of a journal run by students themselves, publishing very early research. A small group of students was gathered and Young Scientists Journal was born. Students from all over the world would be invited to contribute their articles – original or review papers. Being online opened up potential interactive functions such as a comments system, news blog and discussion forum. The students involved in running the journal would be able to enhance their science communication skills in a unique and authentic setting.
We know that many of the articles submitted to YSJournal originate from coursework, projects or competitions, but the process of writing them up formally for publication brings a wealth of benefits.
Writing forces us to organize ideas and express in words our thoughts. A scientific report is a particularly special case of writing: it is a distillation of ideas, written concisely and organized in a logical way. Long tables of data are reserved for appendices, leaving the body of the text to explain clearly the hypothesis, methodology and conclusion. A balance must be struck between technical vocabulary and simplicity. Labelled diagrams are helpful but superfluous images are discouraged. Text should be distilled but not at the expense of clear communication, including conveying something of the excitement of discovery. Referencing techniques and checks for plagiarism are skills quickly learned by authors and editors. What a unique experience!
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Once the research paper is written, getting it published can bring even more benefits. Here are some of the reasons our authors have given over the years:
- Because a teacher or work placement host has ‘required’ it
- Because having done all that work one might as well get credit for it
- Using published status to gain advantage in university or other applications
- To try out the process of getting published
- Becoming a published author and thereby joining the community of published scientists
- Date-stamping a new discovery
- Sharing research methods and earning deserved approbation
- For the honour of it, personally and for one’s school
- Sharing a new discovery for altruistic reasons
Looking back with pride
So, have we achieved our aims? 10 years and 20 issues later, the journal has taken off to an extent we could not have imagined in 2006. Writing for or helping to run the journal has touched the lives of hundreds of authors and editors and tens of thousands who have read the journal from dozens of countries. It seems to have brought benefits both intended and unintended, as you can read in the [alumni article link]. We have published a range of articles from short review pieces by our younger authors (such as Daniel, aged 12, on Chocolate [link]) to impressive original research (such as this paper by Krtin – Google Science Fair finalist [link])
My mentoring of the student team has brought me into contact with many enthusiasts for STEM education, amongst our “PASS” members: Partners, Ambassadors, Supporters and Sponsors [link], business, education and philanthropic organisations, individual scientists, communicators and educators who tuned into our aims. We are extremely fortunate to have over 50 Ambassadors, including some who advise us or mentor our student team. If there is one disappointment it is that few organisations have been forthcoming in supporting us financially, concerned perhaps at the possible risk of funding a student-run organisation. Indeed, I know only too well as a teacher, how difficult it is to achieve the balance between allowing student autonomy to flourish and exercising quality control. But I also know how different the journal would be if adults had the final say over publication decisions and proof-reading. The student ownership is the unique selling point of the journal. Our new Board, with its range of STEM expertise, promises to drive the journal forward into a position of greater strength.
The number of schools and universities approaching us to form YSJournal hubs is very gratifying and this move towards franchising the journal really helps our sustainability as an organization. It was very exciting to be approached last week by a teacher who has recently fled Aleppo to teach in Lebanon and wants to set up a hub to help give academic focus to re-homed migrant students. We’d like to see more non-UK hubs form over the next year or two.
Most of all though, for me, it has been immensely enriching to work with so many very talented, ambitious and inspiring young people. I have been fortunate enough to mentor some exceptionally gifted Chief Editors, most of whom have gone on to illustrious careers in STEM. Their creativity and dynamism is humbling; each has developed the journal in their own way and I hope I have given them the space and support to do so. It is time for me to hand over my mentorship of the student team as my own work as a science educator takes me in new directions. My very best wishes to future generations of the student team, and to their new mentor, Dawn Leslie. I look forward to witnessing the next 10 years as the journal grows further internationally.
- www.kings-school.co.uk ↑
- Professor Ghazwan Butrous, founder of PVRI (Pulmonary Vascular Research Institute) www.pvri.com, and the Butrous Foundation (for the enhancement of science communication amongst young people) www.butrousfoundation.org ↑
- “The correspondence of Isaac Newton, volume 1”, edited by HW Turnbull, 1959, p. 416 ↑