Physics Special Topics

Physics Special Topics is a journal of short, often fun and quirky, quantitative science articles that are written, refereed and edited by undergraduate students as part of their MPhys degree. The journal is designed to help students develop transferable skills in communication, team work, problem solving and critical reviewing.

Articles written by students often make the national and international news. This can be both interesting and exciting for the students, but sometimes causes a little controversy! However, at its root the journal serves a serious educational purpose, and this is discussed below.

The educational purpose of the journal

The Journal of Physics Special Topics forms a 10-credit module in the final year of the four-year undergraduate MPhys degree.

The module gives students an important insight into the process of peer review and scientific publishing. It provides scope for creativity, for group work in a realistic context, and for the opportunity to revise some basic physics.

Split into small groups, the students are asked to come up with ideas for, research, and write, simple papers of no more than two pages, properly presented with formulae, diagrams, references etc.

The groups referee each other’s work and sift out any ‘low quality’ papers containing mistakes or invalid conclusions in a process overseen by a student editorial board.

The end result is the annual edition of the Journal of Physics Special Topics.

The module can be a lot of fun, and - especially for those interested in a career in research - the introduction to the world of scientific publishing and peer review is absolutely invaluable.

Dr. Mervyn Roy, course leader

Thinking outside of the box

It's important for a research physicist - in academia or in industry - to be creative. To think outside the box. If you are facing a new and challenging problem you usually need to apply some imagination to develop a solution or to find a way to approach the problem from a new perspective.

In PST the students exercise their imagination in choosing the problems they research and the approximations they use to make the problems tractable. The papers are not meant to contain ground breaking new physics. Instead, the goal is for the students to apply some of the basic physics they already know in different areas, or in a completely different context.

The choice of topic for each paper is completely up to the students. The only constraints are that the students must calculate something relatively original and quantitative using basic physics from their undergraduate course. Each paper should only take around a few hours of student time - the important thing is that each paper written gives other groups something to peer review.

The peer review process

Even in the most off-the-wall topics, the physics must be correct and the approximations appropriate. Every paper that is submitted to the journal is refereed by at least two other students. As part of this peer review process, the physics is checked, approximations are challenged, and errors are exposed. Not every paper submitted to PST is published.

The world of scientific publishing

Research physicists spend a significant proportion of their professional lives on scientific publishing: writing and submitting papers, and writing and responding to referee reports. Because PST is run like a professional journal, the students practice and develop all the skills they will need when dealing with high profile journals like Nature or Science later on in their careers.

Transferable skills

The journal also provides the opportunity for students to further develop soft skills that are useful in every walk of life - they need to present often quite complex information clearly and concisely; they need to both give and accept professional criticism. Every student also takes a turn serving on the student editorial board that oversees the journal.

History of the Journal

The concept of the Journal of Physics Special Topics was developed by Professor Derek Raine who introduced the Journal onto our MPhys course in 1996. In 2006 Professor Raine was awarded the Institute of Physics Bragg medal for 'his work on the teaching of physics in universities.'

Writing about the journal, the Institute of Physics said "The panel was particularly impressed by the Journal of Special Topics", The journal is "an excellent advertisement for the physics department in addition to being a valuable piece of work that the students could show prospective employers."

Dr Mervyn Roy took over as module leader in 2009 and facilitated the process of moving the Journal fully on-line (including submission of articles, review requests and submissions, editorial decisions and publishing).

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