Are some topics off limits for undergraduate research?

This is a draft version of the my forthcoming editorial for Début: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. I have published it here as I think it is of wider interest than the LLAS community. Are there some topics undergraduates should simply not attempt?

Are some topics intrinsically too difficult for undergraduate students to write about? This question has been raised in some form by two reviewers in the past few months where a student has submitted a paper to the undergraduate journal Début which either engages with very complex ideas or attempts to challenge a well-established theory and offer an alternative. Should scholars lay off trying to dismantle received wisdom and attempting to make theoretical breakthroughs during their undergraduate education? Can undergraduate researchers genuinely advance the discipline? One might argue that if an idea is really good enough to be taken seriously by the academic community it is good enough to be published in a journal which is not restricted to undergraduates.

One of the most memorable incidents of my own academic career took place as an undergraduate. I was in a tutorial with a professor and three other students. I can’t remember what the trigger was, but he turned to one of my fellow tutees and responded, “You may be cleverer than me, but I have been reading this stuff for the past fifteen years.” He pointed to the books by Marx on his bookshelf and told us how difficult it was to really understand Marx, notably because his output was so enormous. If you wish to really understand something you have to do a lot of reading – that takes time.

But should a lack of time to read the entire literature prevent publication in an undergraduate journal such as Début? When we ask people to review for Début we send them a form which reminds them that this is an undergraduate journal and that their expectations should take account of this.  Some reviewers feel that certain topics should not be attempted at all. Others suggest that well thought out and plausible arguments and theories developed by undergraduates should be published, irrespective of whether or not the arguments are fully polished or the writer does not have a full grasp of the existing literature or that their ideas would not make publication in a non-undergraduate journal.

Although undergraduate journals have become increasingly popular in recent years expectations remain unclear. In the first Début editorial in spring 2010 I conceived of the aims of the journal as follows:

Début not only aims to showcase existing research and scholarship — it is also a form of training for the aspiring academic. Whatever its advantages and limitations peer review forms an important part of the process by which academic knowledge comes into being – it is perhaps a matter of concern therefore that many students graduate unaware of how the articles which appear in journals came to be there. The articles in this first volume are “first class” essays made even better. (Canning 2010: ii).

Début is a fifth issue is a useful time to return to the aims and objectives of the journal, but equally importantly a good time to remind ourselves of what Début is not. Début was and still is an undergraduate journal. Undergraduate journals complete the research cycle for undergraduate students giving them an outlet for their work familiarising them with the (imperfect) peer review process (Walkington in Corbyn 2008). I hope that everyone who publishes in Début benefits from the process and that readers enjoy the articles.

I sincerely hope that some of today’s Début contributors will become academic stars of the future. What we see in Début today may be the beginnings of paradigm-shifting work for the future.


Canning, J. (2010) Editorial: Introducing Début: Début: the undergraduate journal of language linguistics and area studies 1.1 pp. i-ii

Corbyn, Z. (2008) Let students enjoy the power of print. Times Higher Education, 7 August 2008.

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