Kid-reviewed, kid-approved research

By Laila Samphilipo

Oct. 19, 2022

When Vinod Venkatraman went to a Philadelphia science fair a few years ago, he didn’t expect to hit it off with a kids’ science journal. Yet, only a few years later, the associate professor of marketing at the Fox School finds himself periodically walking children through the peer-reviewing process as a science mentor for Frontiers for Young Minds.

To help make research more digestible for younger audiences, researchers involved with Frontiers for Young Minds draft two copies of their research: one with traditional academic complexity and jargon, and the other rewritten with terminology that can be more easily understood by children.

The more accessible draft is then sent to Frontiers for Young Minds where it is assigned to a science mentor like Venkatraman.

With each neuroscience paper the journal sends his way, Venkatraman assembles a team of children aged 8-15 to participate in the peer-reviewing process. According to Venkatraman, the children usually read the article a few times alone before the group comes together to confer about the research.

As a group, the children and Venkatraman discuss various questions: Do I understand this paper? Do I know what the authors are trying to say? Is it written in language that is accessible to me? Are there terms that I do not understand? Do I have any questions about the research that’s going on? Is there anything I feel is still not clear?

After that input is formalized in writing, feedback is sent to the authors to revise their work.

According to Venkatraman, there’s quite a bit of variability in the children’s feedback.

“I think that’s part of the whole [peer-reviewing] process,” says Venkatraman. “I think, to understand what perspective each student brings to it and how they understand it, and how to incorporate all of that to make the research more accessible to everyone.” 

There is one thing children consistently give feedback on, though: visuals.

“We get a lot of feedback about the figures. [The children] would like to understand visual illustrations and many times the authors don’t spend as much time the first round on it; they just focus on the technical details,” says Venkatraman. 

With the feedback from the children, the authors are better able to translate their research and make their findings more accessible. Once their work is sufficiently edited, it gets posted on the Frontiers for Young Minds website, where more children can access and read research.

According to Venkatraman, the children are eager to participate in the peer-reviewing process and learn more about science.

One of the child reviewers who worked alongside Venkatraman said, “My favorite part of the review process was giving feedback to the writer as well as learning something new at the same time. I learned about the sensory homunculus, that brain areas can be recycled, and also that the brain feels like a Jell-O.”

In the future, Venkatraman sees a greater push to make research accessible to younger audiences.

“All of us [researchers] are going to focus on doing high-quality research and that process is going to stay the same,” says Venkatraman. “But I think there should be and will be, a greater push to make findings more accessible once that initial work is published somewhere.” “The ultimate goal is to move science. It is important to get the future generation of scientists excited about the latest research across different disciplines. And there is no better way to do it than involve them in the process of curating what gets published for consumption among their peers,” he added.