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Sometimes, there are questions on here about undergraduate students publishing research (see here, here, and here). The answers don't seem particularly surprised that this is happening or try to dissuade the asker, they treat it like a normal question.

In my entire life, I've never heard of undergraduates publishing results apart from a handful of examples from famous science prodigies.

Furthermore, my experience of undergraduate was not conducive at all to publishing. I graduated from a mediocre UK university, and there was no original research done at all. Undergraduate is for getting you up to speed on the foundations of a field, preparing you for postgraduate where you study one sub-field, then a PhD where you push the boundaries of a sub-sub-field.

The questions linked above give advice like, "Discuss it with your supervisor". But as far as I'm aware undergraduates don't have supervisors.

Is this really as common as it would seem from questions on here? Is it a regional thing? Something that happens only at top universities?

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    Its a fair question, though, and as the other posts note it publishing as an undergraduate is still not the 'norm', but happens enough to be notable without being unheard of. If it doesn't address what you were wanting to know please do feel free to ask another question that gets at what the existing Q&As don't address! – BrianH Feb 1 at 2:05
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    It's common to expected for science students at expensive ivies and near-ivies to work in a lab and get experience/publications. It's reasonably common at large public research universities. It's difficult in other situations. Either way it's very rare to actually drive the science bus as an undergraduate. Usually you're there to see how the bus works. Some grad student or postdoc is driving. – user101106 Feb 1 at 2:13
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    There's also a culture difference. Undergraduate research is much less common in the UK than in the US. – SolveIt Feb 1 at 6:10
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Most undergraduates do not publish, but it's quite normal for undergraduates who get involved in research to end up publishing.

Reasons why few undergraduates publish include:

  • They aren't interested in research, or are more interested in all the myriad other awesome things you can spend your time on as a newly (semi)independent adult in college.
  • They are interested in research, but don't manage to find a good mentor (typically a professor) to work with. Nearly all undergraduate institutions have professors doing research, but some institutions or departments within an institution have a lot more going on than others.
  • They get connected to a research project, but their work isn't publishable. Undergraduates are typically unreliable (see first point), and so often are given high-risk or boring work (a friend of mine got a "research" job one summer crushing rocks into fine powder with a mortar and pestle).
  • They do publishable research, but it doesn't come out until they are no longer an undergraduate. Even the fastest project rarely takes less than six months from start to publication, and many take multiple years. If a student starts researching in their junior or senior year, even a great project may not result in publications during undergraduate.

That said, none of these are particularly insurmountable obstacles, and with the right combination of interest, a good environment, and a bit of luck, it's quite reasonable to have work published as an undergraduate.

Some undergraduates even become quite well-published, simply by virtue of having the right combination of skill, luck, and circumstances. For example, this week a colleague of mine mentioned to me that one of his undergraduate students now had approximately a dozen journal publications. Until they said it, I hadn't realized this student's numbers had accumulated quite so much, but it didn't surprise me, since this student is a good contributor to a complex many-person project that publishes frequently.

In short: undergraduate publication is statistically infrequent, but entirely normal.

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Of course they do. It does happen to undergrads who find research internships or in programs where they can do an undergraduate thesis for instance. It’s not that rare in some fields, but quite so in other fields.

One does need a bit of luck though, as not all project will have reached or can even reach a stage where an undergraduate may contribute enough to warrant co-authorship.

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It's not that hard in some of the experimental sciences, especially if not first author. Assuming you have some relation to a lab group and have a grad student or postdoc running a project and you run a few of his samples. Not really that hard to get included. Yeah...even then it is time away from your real classes or the brewpub. But far from impossible.

Edit: saw your comment on the school. Yeah, if it is not a research university, that will of course make it hard to do what I just said. But if you are at Cal or Georgia Tech or the like, not a problem. Especially if you use some savvy to figure out which group to work with, what sorts of things to get involved with. Not cutting edge super math, not building apparatus, not waiting for a Space Shuttle to run your sample. But a group that publishes a lot.

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It varies from field to field. But some fields this isn't uncommon at all. STEM and social sciences fields are generally easier to publish than in humanities, in part due to it being less subjective about what is worth publishing. It is easier to publish in fields which don't require a lot of experimental equipment(unless one is a member of some very big collaboration- some of the big papers out of the LHC have undergrads on the author lists for example), and so math is one of the fields where it is most common. In various areas of math, some areas are easier for non-experts to understand than other. For example, graph theory and number theory have more low-hanging fruit that doesn't require technical background, while for example algebraic topology has more trouble.

At a pure level of anecdote, my first published paper was actually in high school; this is rare but not at all unheard of, and I wasn't particularly brilliant. I got lucky and found some low-hanging fruit that hadn't been noticed.

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I suspect what you're thinking of as "undergraduate" isn't what others are thinking of when they say they do research as undergraduates. For example, suppose a student goes directly into a 4-year undergraduate program topped off by a one-year long research project (known as an "Honours project" in some places). The results of this can certainly be publishable. Other possibilities could be, a summer research project, or a direct-to-Masters program like the MPhys. In all these cases, the undergraduate will indeed have a supervisor.

Of course undergraduates, being relatively inexperienced, are not likely to get revolutionary results, but they can still achieve publishable results, and that can lead to publications. It's possible, and I'd say quite common for the best undergraduates to have published something before graduate school.

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