Publishing academic research is becoming a common way for the top high school students to distinguish themselves in the admission process. Yet, for many students what publication is and how to approach it is unclear and confusing. This guide’s goal is to provide a starter for any students interested in research and publication. It comes from the result of working with 500+ students as part of the Lumiere Research Scholar Program.
What does it mean to “Publish Your Research?” What does publication even mean? In short, publishing your research means that you have gone through a rigorous, peer-reviewed process that has analyzed, critiqued, and ultimately accepted your research as legitimate. Scientific publications are gatekeepers to the broader world. If a research piece is not published by a journal, it means that it has not yet passed a rigorous, external analysis of the research.
Publications use a process called the “peer review” which means that fellow researchers in the same field will analyze the paper and its contribution and give feedback to the authors. This process is often double-blind, meaning that the reviewer does not know who the author is and the author does not know who the researcher is.
Is it possible for a high school student to publish their research? The short answer is yes. The longer answer, detailed below, is that there are many different types of journals that have different selectivity rates and bars for rigor. Just like universities, some publications are extremely competitive and provide a very strong external signal for the author. Some journals are less competitive and so provide a less powerful signal. For high school students, there is an emerging group of journals focused on high school or college-level research. These journals understand the limitations of high school students and their ability to do research, and so they are often more feasible (though still difficult) for students to get into. We’ll explore some types of those journals below.
Why publish your research in high school But, why even go to the trouble of publishing? Does it really matter? The short answer again is that it does matter. Publication in a top journal, like the Concord Review, can provide a valuable signal to a college admission officer about your work.
One thing to consider is who is an admission officer (for US universities). These people are usually generalists, meaning they have a broad background, but do not have researcher-level depth in many fields. That means it’s difficult for them to distinguish good research from bad research. What is rigorous and what is just put on an application?
This means that admissions officers search for signals when evaluating research or passion projects. Was the project selected into a selective journal? Did it go through a peer-review process by respected researchers? Was it guided by a researcher who the admission officer would believe? Did the research mentor guide speak positively about the student? All of these are positive signals. The publication is thus not the only way to signal ability, but it is one of the most important for young researchers.
What type of research can get published?
Most types of research can be published. But, the more original research that you can do, the broader the options you have. In other words, if you write a literature review, then your writing and synthesis must be very strong for it to be eligible for most publications. If you do some form of data collection or new data analysis, then the bar for rigor in student publications is usually a little bit lower as the difficulty to do this type of data collection or analysis is higher.
Types of Publication Targets
At Lumiere, we think of publications like students think of universities. There are research journals (most selective), target journals, and safety journals. In short, journals range in their selectivity and rigor. The more selective the journal, the better a signal it gives.
Highly Selective High School & College Publications
The first type of journals that students should think about are highly selective high school & college-level publications. These journals include the Concord Review or the Columbia Junior Science Journal. For example, one Lumiere student’s research was recently admitted to the Cornell Undergraduate Economic Review, a rigorous college-level journal for university-level economic papers. This student was the first high school student to ever be published in the journal, a clear signal.
These journals include both a review process and a limited number of spots in the journal. The Concord Review, for example, accepts about 45 student research papers each year of an estimated 900 submissions. The Columbia Junior Science Journal, similarly, publishes between 10-20 papers each year. Most of these journals will require original research or data collection of some sort.
Rigorous, Peer Reviewed High School Publications
The next level of journals are rigorous, peer-reviewed publications. These journals, such as the Journal of Emerging Investigators or the Journal of Student Research, have a peer-review process. These journals have requirements on the type of papers that are accepted (e.g., some will accept new data analyses, some will accept literature reviews). These journals do not have a certain number of slots predefined, but they do have a bar for what type of research they will accept. For these journals, students will submit their paper and the journal will assign (or ask you to identify) a potential set of reviewers for the paper. These reviewers will be researchers in the field, who hold a PhD. The reviewers will then give back comments. The Journal of Emerging Investigators stands out here among these journals as being one of the most rigorous and providing the most in-depth, critical feedback to students.
Pay to Play Research Journals (AVOID THESE) Finally, there are some journals that are essentially “Pay-to-play” meaning that they will accept any paper as long as a fee is paid. These journals are not only not academically ethical, they can actually be a bad signal in the admission process. For example, I spoke with a former Harvard Admission Officer, Sally Champagne, about her experience with publications. During the late 2000s, there was a high spike in students from Russia submitting “publications” that all linked back to a few fraudulent journals.
You can spot a fraudulent journal if there is a high fee for submitting the paper (some journals will charge a nominal fee to recoup their costs. That is OK, especially if they have a financial aid waiver). If any paper you submit is accepted without any revisions or feedback, then this is also a sign that the publication is not rigorous.
PhD Level Publications in A Field Finally, there are publications that PhD researchers or professors target with their research. These journals are highly selective and can take years of back and forth in order for a paper to be admitted. In general, we do not recommend high school students who are working on independent projects to target these journals for their difficulty and time required. The most common way to target these journals is if you act as a research assistant for a researcher on an existing project and you are credited as a supporting author.
Other Publication Options Beyond journals, there are other ways to showcase your research. I highlight some of those below.
Practitioner publications Another way to showcase your work is to target respected practitioner publications. These are places where non-researchers go to learn about developments. For example, one student in Lumiere published a piece in Tech In Asia summarizing his research on Open Innovation and the Ventilator Market (Tech In Asia is the Tech Crunch equivalent in South East Asia). Other practitioner publications include Online Magazines like Forbes or the Financial Times, local newspapers, or online blogs like the Huffington Post can all serve as possible targets. Generally publications in these places requires direct contact with an editorial manager, who can take a call as to whether your work is appropriate or not. To get to these editorial managers, you’ll need to do some online search and send them a pitch email that explains why your work is relevant to their audience. Offering an “exclusive” can be one additional way to make it attractive to the editors.
Research Conferences Another place to showcase your research is in research conferences. In some fields, like computer science, conferences are actually more common places to publish work than journals. One advantage of research conferences is that they often will accept abstracts of research instead of full-length research articles, making the amount of effort required to get accepted lower. As well, many conferences want more researchers to populate the conference, again making the admission process easier. Example conferences for high school students to look at include the Harvard Science Research Conference or the Sigma Xi Annual Meeting. There are also field specific conferences that you should search for based on your research paper.
Finally, a common way to showcase your research is in the form of a student competition. Science fairs, such as ISEF Regeneron, is one common way for students to showcase their work. But, there are dozens of others, including the Genius Olympiad (Environmental Issues), John Locke Essay Competition, or the STEM Fellowship Competition. Competitions can be one of the highest impact ways to show your work because it’s clear signaling. If you can win a competition with hundreds of entrants, then being able to write about it in your application shows your unique ability. In addition, competitions can often be submitted to parallel with other research publications (check your publications requirements before doing that though!).
The Final Word – Publication Can Be High Impact If you have already written a research paper, then I highly encourage you to think about submitting it to high school or college level publications. The majority of work that you have done is spent on the research paper itself. So, if you can spend an additional 10-20 hours to showcase your research, then it’s highly valuable for you.
FAQ About Publications 1. Do I need to publish my research for it to be impactful? No, but it provides a useful signal. Doing research alone is a rare and impressive way for students to showcase their academic depth. If you can publish that research, it adds a layer of external legitimacy to that research.
2. Can I publish a research that is a literature review?
Yes, though, you’ll have to think of which target journals accept that. For example, the Journal of Student Research and the STEM Fellowship Journal both accept literature reviews, but the Journal of Emerging Investigators does not. In general, the more original research that you do (i.e., data analysis, data collection, etc.) the broader the range of publications you can target. With that said, some fields (e.g. astrophysics) can be particularly difficult to do new data collection as a high school student, so for those fields a rigorous literature review is usually the best choice.
3. Are all publications the same?
No. Publications are like universities. Some are highly respected, selective, and rigorous and others are not. The key is for you to identify a journal that is as selective/respected as possible that you can get into. Watch out for pay-to-play journals, as they can become negative signals for you and your application.
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.