Student Collaborative Writing Group to Published Research Paper – An 8 Week Undergraduate Challenge

September 9, 2015

Written by guest blogger, John Maclachlan.


john maclachlan

Have you ever been asked by an editor to write a journal article for a special issue in eight weeks? Most of us would consider that a reasonable timeline if we had all of the background research compiled and necessary data collected and analyzed. What if you were asked to write the same article but you had not completed the data analysis? That might make you a little less confident but you would likely feel it was possible. Now, what if the editor came to you and asked you to create a research question, collect and analyze data, complete all the background research and write a paper ready for publication in a mere 8 weeks? Most of us would think the editor is being unrealistic and unceremoniously delete the e-mail. Now imagine all of this occurring during the last semester of your undergraduate career. This is exactly what was asked of the students in the McMaster University School of Geography and Earth Sciences 4th year undergraduate course ‘Glacial Sediments and Environments.’ When I told the class of the plan I was met with some understandable skepticism but that quickly turned into excitement when the process was explained to them. This was an optional assignment and students had the option of completing a more traditional report but the buy-in was apparent when over 90% of the class of 40 students opted to write a journal article.

To allow everyone to work to their strengths, collaborative writing groups were created allowing for students to get involved in projects that they may have previously avoided. For example students in the class that had little background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) now had the opportunity to work on projects that included advanced spatial analysis. While I often run into students in the hallways of McMaster I may never forget the student who was walking to GIS Lab with a box of cupcakes on her way to a group meeting excited that she was learning what GIS could actually do and contributing to original research.

In a recent special edition focusing on student papers, Cartographica (Student Papers: Glaciers, Geomorphology, and Sedimentology) published six original research papers authored by McMaster University School of Geography and Earth Sciences undergraduate students. As the students had full control over their research questions a wide range of topics are explored. Two papers explore current practices of assessing geomorphological (“Morphological Interpretations of Glacial Forms by Spatial Analysis in the Area Surrounding Lake Simcoe, Ontario”) and geologic data (“SketchUp as a Construction Tool for Large-Scale Subsurface Structures: Three-Dimensional Visualization of the Parry Sound Domain, Grenville Province, Ontario’’) and offer commentary on best practices moving forward. The glacial history of Simcoe Country in southern Ontario is investigated through the special analysis of both dunes (“Delineation of Paleowind Direction from Dunes in Simcoe County, Ontario’’) and, the ever controversial glacial landform, drumlins (“Quantifying Eroded Sediment Volume during Drumlin Formation in Simcoe County’’). Not all research is based on Canadian content. Two papers use Icelandic data to address timely scientific questions. The first assesses the impacts of a subglacial volcano in Iceland (“Mapping the Impacts of Iceland’s Katla Subglacial Volcano on the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier’’) and the second looks at lake levels in response to a melting glacier (“Potential Environmental Effects of Expanding Lake Jökulsárlón in Response to Melting of Breiðamerkurjökull, Iceland’’).

I see this project as belonging to the students and the overall experience is well summed up by one of the authors, Christine van Beest:Christine Van Best

Being given the opportunity to have a published scientific article as an undergrad is a rare occurrence, and I was honoured to have the support from my professor and peers to achieve this accomplishment. I learned how to work with a group of peers to achieve a singular large goal as well has how to better self-critic my academic work. Overall being published has made me want to continue my academic journey in environmental science, and I plan on pursuing a Master’s degree in the field.


John Maclachlan’s article, “Student Collaborative Writing Groups: Mapping Glacial Geomorphology and Glacial Sedimentology” appears in Volume 50 Issue 3 (2015) of the Cartographica. Read it today by clicking here

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