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    Can High School Students Publish Scientific Research?

    Posted November 9, 2023, 10:45 am by Bonnie Hale & Dr. Robert A. Malkin

    While no university expects a high school student to have published a peer-reviewed research paper, a growing number of students and their parents believe that a substantive research publication can elevate a college application. Yet, this endeavor can be risky. 

    Publishing in the wrong journal or accidentally misrepresenting one’s role in a published work can dramatically reduce the student’s chance of acceptance at selective universities. Counselors can make a difference by providing informed advice about the compliance, ethics, representation claims, and the academic publishing process.

    Not only can publication be costly, time consuming and risky, but it is often domain specific. Before beginning to consider publication, encourage your high school students to engage with an experienced mentor, preferably a Professor (with a capital P) at an accredited university. 

    A Professor has the mentorship and scientific experience to guide students through the ethical research and publication process. Instructors, lecturers, PhD candidates, graduate students and other non-Professor, university affiliates may not have the depth of background in the entire publication process to adequately advise the student, nor provide legal oversight for work. 

    Even high school students with excellent mentors need to understand the issues they must consider if they are going to undertake publishable research.

    Why Legal Compliance is Paramount for Scientific Publications 

    All reputable journals will reject a paper for publication if it fails to meet the required legal standards, considerations that start well before the first piece of data is gathered. The most common compliance issue that high school students stumble upon is obtaining ethical approval of their methods or protocols. Before any data can be obtained, a review by an independent board may be required. Most journals now ask for the name of the review board, and perhaps the review file number. 

    High school students have also been known to have their papers rejected, or publication significantly delayed, when they have mistaken public sharing of data or an image on a website for a license to use that image or data in their work. That is a copyright violation. Even sharing their own work could be a copyright violation. Research is often the intellectual property of the principal investigator, university, or funding agency. 

    Another common compliance issue for high school authors is a failure to disclose their source of funding or conflicts of interest, such as monies or connections obtained through their parents. Any of these violations may reflect poorly on the student’s college application and could eliminate a paper for publication.

    One area of considerable misunderstanding and which requires careful consideration is what constitutes ethical authorship. Most journals recognize the American Psychological Association (APA) guidelines for the definition of authors as: 

    1. Those who have made substantial contributions to the intellectual development and design of the research project and ensuing paper; those who have acquired the research data; or analyzed and interpreted that data.
    2. Persons who participated in the original writing, reviewing, and/or revising of the article’s important intellectual content.
    3. Those have final approval for the accuracy and truthfulness of the final version. 

    If the high school student  does not meet all three of these criteria, then they should not attempt to claim authorship. Exaggeration or misrepresentation can cause immediate rejection or retraction of the manuscript. In many cases, the student may think they deserve authorship on a publication when an acknowledgement is more appropriate. Should this mistake surface during the college application review, it can be catastrophic. 

    In addition to these most common roadblocks to publication for otherwise stellar examples of science, there are many other compliance issues that can derail a would-be author. Ensuring that the research adheres to all the laws and regulations is exactly the kind of knowledge that an experienced Professor can lend.

    How to Include Your Scientific Publication in Your College Application 

    Admissions committees may refer a college applicant’s folder to the faculty for review, especially if a significant research publication is claimed in the materials. Faculty know the most important journals in their field, so it is important to select the target journal carefully. 

    To be considered a substantive piece of research, it must be published in a peer-reviewed, impact-factor rated, indexed journal. Peer review is an approach to deciding which submissions to accept for publication. The most common alternative is editor-reviewed, also called a pre-print journal. Impact-factor rating is a measure of how often articles from that journal are cited by others. 

    Unfortunately, less than reputable impact factor rating systems have proliferated. The Journal Citation Reports (JCR) and Web of Science (WoS) publish the most respected and unbiased database of journal impact factors. An indexed journal is a publication that can be found in common database search engines, like Google Scholar or PubMed. The easiest way to determine if a journal is indexed is to try to search for the latest articles in the same database that was used to generate the literature review at the beginning of the project. 

    A manuscript should be ready for submission many months before a student wishes to use it as part of their college application. Delays of days, weeks or even months at each step are common. If you have that much time, consider selecting a journal with faster processing. However, the more selective the journal is, the longer the process can take.

    The most time-consuming steps in the publication process are formatting, review, and resubmittal. Once a journal is selected for publication, the manuscript needs to be reformatted to that journal’s specifications, usually described in their author guidelines. After that, review and resubmittal can take days but usually takes weeks or months.

    College Applicants: Cite Your Work! 

    Once a manuscript is accepted for publication, it is usually available on the journal’s website relatively quickly. But it is too soon to celebrate. You can still hurt yourself in your college application if you don’t cite your work correctly. Overstating your accomplishment can reduce your chances of acceptance or even eliminate your application altogether

    Unless the work was published with the student as an author in a peer-reviewed, impact-factor rated, indexed journal, it is best to only state the academic research as part of the student’s extracurricular activities. The publication should not be mentioned. The name of the Professor, their university affiliation and the dates can be shared. 

    There is no advantage, and there can be a detriment to including the name of a placement agency (a third-party company that helped the student find the faculty member or organize the research) as this can be seen as a pay-to-play, which may also be viewed negatively.

    If the work has been submitted but not yet accepted for publication, the research work can still be presented as an extracurricular activity but the publication should not be mentioned. Publication in junior science journals, private labels, or pre-print journals – anything that is not peer-reviewed, impact-factor rated, and indexed - can be included in the college application but should not be presented as academic research.

    Posters, short abstracts, and Science Fair Presentations are not considered academic research publications but can be listed as extracurricular activities. The student can say where they presented, to whom, the audience size, and the name of their research mentor. 

    A substantive research accomplishment can certainly improve a college application but handling the publication incorrectly can be devastating.

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    Bonnie Hale & Dr. Robert A. Malkin

    Bonnie is an experienced writer, including expertise in editing and developing peer-reviewed journal articles. Dr. Malkin is a Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering and Global Health, Emeritus, Duke University. Academic Director, IRI-NC.