By KeShonna Jackson ’24
With this spring’s inaugural issue of the Cornell Undergraduate Research Journal, or CURJ, Cornell University now has a digital and print publication dedicated to reporting the findings and research accomplishments of Cornell’s enterprising undergraduate students. CURJ is a peer-reviewed, academic journal that allows Cornell students to share their research with the world.
CURJ began in January 2021 as an idea of Victoria Alkin ’23. A biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences and a researcher herself, Alkin saw the need for an undergraduate research journal at Cornell and took it upon herself to build it from the ground up. Now Alkin is the editor-in-chief of CURJ, her vision transformed to print.
“Research is a large part of the undergraduate experience at Cornell,” Alkin says. “Students across all majors and disciplines partake in research of many different forms. I noticed in my sophomore year that although many undergraduate researchers write some kind of paper or senior thesis as part of their research experience, very few end up getting published in an established, peer-reviewed journal. I wanted there to be a way for students to share their research with the Cornell community and the research community at large.”
Putting the Pages Together
Toward the middle of 2021, Alkin recruited two other researchers to help put her plan into action. Emily Pollack ’24, a biological sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is CURJ’s managing editor of content. Melia Matthews, a doctoral student in the field of biomedical and biological science, is the graduate student coordinator. Alkin’s idea immediately resonated with Pollack and Matthews.
“I wanted there to be a way for students to share their research with the Cornell community and the research community at large.”
“When I first heard about CURJ, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” says Matthews. “[CURJ planned to use] graduate students for the peer review process. I knew that having a graduate student help mediate that process would be important. Grad students are normally the ones who are publishing their research in journals, so I think this position lends crucial experience and perspective to the group.”
Alkin, Pollack, and Matthews are a part of a team that grew significantly after Alkin’s embryotic vision began to take form. The journal’s institutional structure took shape in a matter of months. The CURJ board operates with the guidance and assistance of their organizational adviser, Ellen Hartman, director of research communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI), and Gail Steinhart, a librarian at Cornell University Library who specializes in scholarly communication. The board is divided into several teams — editorial, outreach, graphic design, finance, and operations — and consists entirely of students who have collectively invested hundreds of hours into making the journal.
“All the work had to be done from scratch,” Alkin says. “A lot of things needed to be done to get the journal up and running, from legal forms to branding to recruitment to planning to creating a new website, getting finances, and creating entirely new processes for articles, submissions, review, graphic design, and journal layout.”
During fall 2021, the CURJ board began soliciting submissions for their first issue, planned for spring 2022. They reached out to labs, research groups, and faculty members to spread the word.
While the board drummed up interest in the new publication and sought a diverse group of papers for the inaugural issue, Matthews had to build a team of reviewers who could evaluate submissions. “I sent out the solicitation for grad student reviewers, and we had an amazing response,” Matthews says. “About 110 people wanted to volunteer their time. We now have graduate student reviewers representing over 30 different research fields.”
Peer Review Process
For the first issue, the board received 20 submissions. Each submission goes through four stages of review. Initially, the student’s adviser or principal investigator (PI) checks the paper. Then CURJ’s editorial team ensures that the paper abides by its submission guidelines, looking out as well for errors or inconsistencies.
These steps are followed by a thorough review by graduate students or faculty advisers who specialize in the field of research under discussion.
The review process is finalized when the editorial team revisits the corrected paper, ensuring that the appropriate changes have been made and that the article is perfect and prepared for publication.
“We assigned two submissions to each person on the editorial team over winter break [of 2021–2022] to review the article, ensuring that [the submissions] met our guidelines and were what we wanted,” Pollack says. “When we came back together after the break, we each had to decide if the articles that we had reviewed ought to be included in the first issue. We then had to defend our decision to the rest of the group. Finally, as a whole, we voted on whether we wanted to publish each article or not.”
For the first issue, the editorial board selected nine articles featuring a wide range of topics, with titles such as “State of Hate in Greater Buffalo: A Community Perspective” and “The Considerations of Biological Plausibility in Deep Learning.”
A Publishing Platform to Support Cornell’s Mission
The OVPRI is supporting CURJ with a seed grant to assist with startup costs and to fund the first issue. CURJ is also supported by a grant from the Contribution Project.
The journal will publish two issues per year, which will appear both in print and online through Open Journal Systems, a free, open-access platform provided by the Cornell University Library. Steinhart was pleased to introduce the CURJ team to the platform. “When [the idea for CURJ] was first announced, I said, ‘I’m ready to help with this.’ We have a new journal hosting service whose purpose is to facilitate scholar-led journal publishing, which supports Cornell’s mission to disseminate knowledge and creative expression,” Steinhart says.
Open Journal Systems allows readers to access CURJ online at no cost. It also supports submission, review, and editorial workflows for authors, reviewers, and editors.
The CURJ team is dedicated to sharing and promoting the high-quality undergraduate research happening at Cornell. They hope that their efforts will advance undergraduate research at Cornell and support the research careers of undergraduate students.
“This journal will allow undergrads at Cornell, as well as anyone else in the Cornell community, to read articles written by their peers and be exposed to various kinds of research that they might not have been aware of before,” says Pollack. “Our main goal is to become an established part of the Cornell research community and hopefully get undergraduate students excited about submitting to the journal and seeing their work published.”