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As Daniel Spitzberg sees it, good science writing is more than just beneficial skill for researchers to have, it is an absolute necessity. "I've seen New York Times articles on climate change that brought home the message more clearly than most—if not all—science articles I've read," said the recent graduate of the School of Environment. "The arrogance that some scientists have in believing that their writing, in its complexity, is more valuable than good journalism is self-defeating."
"Above all, scientists—especially as students—need to learn how to communicate their science in generalized, non-technical language. Nothing is more frustrating than having a great idea but being unable to articulate to others."
Enter the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal, or mSURJ, a unique publication that offers undergraduate science students a rare opportunity to participate in the peer-review process, get their first publication credit and, in the end, improve their science.
Spitzberg, the journal's Editor-in-Chief, is getting ready to launch mSURJ on March 29.
Actually, it will be a re-launch of sorts, the inaugural issue having hit the stands last April. Spitzberg, who was a member of the Editorial Board last year, remembers that issue well.
"I was extremely disappointed with it," he said. "It was inconsistently structured and formatted.
"Plus, although articles were edited, they didn't go through a formal review process.
"The journal had no backbone to it."
However, his disappointment was buoyed by the enthusiasm his fellow undergrads demonstrated for the enterprise. "It was bubbling up with interest among students and we had dozens of applications for editor," he said. "I saw that this had real potential."
Taking the reins, Spitzberg and the editorial board completely revamped the journal, making it one of the first undergraduate journals in North America to select articles on a competitive, peer-review basis.
Each author must provide the names of three reviewers, from which the Editorial Board selects one. To this, the Board adds a second independent reviewer and, finally, gives its own appraisal of the article. The author is provided with all three evaluations, rewrites the article and submits it once again.
The process, though stringent, is the very cornerstone upon which the journal has been rebuilt. mSURJ has a "gold standard for peer review," said Spitzberg. "Without this, we wouldn't have any credibility. Now the journal is much more than just a celebration of publication, it is a true engagement in scientific discovery."
With the old publish or perish credo hanging over the heads of scholars like a sword of Damocles, mSURJ will give undergraduate authors and editors valuable experience with the world of publishing. "Here, students are the authors of their own work," said Spitzberg, "not just a lab rat for a professor, doing a small part of the research and maybe getting credit as the fourth or fifth author. Where's the inspiration in that?"
Funded in large part by the Faculty of Science, mSURJ will also rely on volunteers from staff and faculty for advice on everything from cataloguing and submission guidelines to streamlining the administrative process. "Everybody, myself included, is learning so much about writing, editing and producing a viable research journal," said Spitzberg. "It's bringing a whole new crop of interested and inspired students into the mix."
Interested in mSURJ? Prospective contributors are encouraged to watch for the Call for Submissions for mSURJ Volume 3 Issue 1 in October, 2007 or visit mSURJ online at msurj.mcgill.ca