*Photo credits: University of the Witwatersrand gate. Photo credits - Job Mwaura
A few months ago, I had a conversation with three early career fellows who had recently completed their doctoral studies in universities based in Africa. In the conversation, we shared experiences of how we began our journeys into scholarly writing. One of them mentioned that when he began his postgraduate studies, writing a research proposal was obviously a first step but he had a vague idea of how to navigate this. When he wrote a few pages of his proposal and shared it with his supervisor, she made two lines across it and asked him to go and do a complete rewrite and resend. No one had taught him how to write a research proposal in a style his university required. He had to go and figure it out by himself and then resubmit. The second fellow faced almost a similar issue and he had to do a lot of figuring out by himself on how to write dissertation chapters.
With the requirement in certain universities that PhD students are to publish an article before graduating, the third fellow mentioned that he had to figure out how to write a journal article by himself. At that time, he struggled to access journal articles online because the library in his home country did not subscribe to journals. At some point, he had to solicit help from his friends overseas to email him scholarly publications that he could not access. After a lot of figuring out how to write a journal article of his own, he was “lucky” to publish in what he called “alternative” journals, also referred elsewhere as predatory journals. He had to part with a huge amount of money as article processing fee in a publication that paid very little attention to editorial rigor. But these are a small part of what early career and postgraduate students face in scholarly writing and research dissemination in Africa.
Early career scholars and postgraduate students aspire to be published authors, and scholarly writing, despite its difficulty and hurdles, fosters progress and satisfaction. Writing and publishing elicits a sense of power or greater self-importance to scholars, as well as a sense of sheer delight at seeing one’s name in print. Scholars secure a faculty post, earn promotions, clarify concepts, investigate new topics, contribute to their professions, and receive financial incentives in form of scholarships, fellowships, funds, and grants, among other things, through scholarly writing. Even though there are other ways to contribute to knowledge, scholarly writing and publishing appears to be the most dominant. This, therefore, means that there is no option than for scholars to learn to write and to be committed to the craft of scholarly writing and navigate the same successfully.
Postgraduate and early-career trainers and mentors in most African universities invest very little in the craft of writing beyond research and methodology courses. Prof. Jane Bennett of the University of Cape Town who teaches a course on research and publication at undergraduate level remarked during the annual Kwame Nkrumah Cultural festival that students who had previously loved writing in high schools did not want to engage in writing beyond their assignments. She stated that it seemed students were getting terrified of writing in universities and that has to change. While research and methodology courses at postgraduate level mostly concentrate on data generation/collection, there is hardly any training on how to analyse data nor prepare the research in publishable format for various outlets such as journals, books and monographs, opinion editorials, or even conferences. A senior scholar based at the English Department of University of Lagos with whom I had a conversation was of the view that African scholars, despite having very strong and viable data, are weak in conceptualizing and analysing these data for scholarly outputs, compared to scholars in the global North. He had noted this from his years of reviewing for journals across the world. He added that if we laid more emphasis on the craft of writing at postgraduate levels, we would easily solve the majority of the problems associated with knowledge production in Africa.
The solution to these issues, in my opinion, should be two fold. First, there must be a great deal of effort from postgraduate students and early career researchers to engage in activities that would help them improve their scholarly writing. For instance, it is important for them to nurture a strong commitment to the craft of writing through reading diverse scholarly outputs in their field of study. In addition, it is important for them to attend scholarly events such as workshops, seminars and conferences led or hosted by senior scholars in their field from whom they can learn or be mentored in the craft of scholarly writing. Listening to such senior scholars and reading their work can go a long way in making them learn about scholarly writing. But this alone cannot be the only solution. The second solution I propose is that there must be a commitment from senior scholars to practically mentor their mentees and postgraduate students on the craft of scholarly writing and publishing. Prof. Keguro Macharia in a discussion on Twitter on this subject mentioned that “teaching people how to navigate [the craft of scholarly writing] in concrete ways is not thinking for them”. This seems to be working albeit outside the African continent and our senior scholars need to borrow a leaf from such a practise. In the same thread of discussion, Prof. Shabana Mir from American Islamic college in Chicago mentioned that “I did that for an anthropology class for early PhD students, and they said it was the most valuable class they'd had. It wasn't the most heavily theoretical class, but it took a little time away from content. It just gently got them started on purposeful academic writing”. Mimosa Shah, a librarian and a postgraduate student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also mentioned that several of her professors had done great work assigning practical activities such as writing book reviews, moderating a forum for a select topic, creating a lesson plan with learning outcomes, and even writing cover letters. Obviously, you would not put such a student, who has been taught such skills at par with a student who has never been taught how to do so.
Universities have a bigger role to play in ensuring holistic professional training for early career researchers and postgraduate students in African universities. Universities must provide a lot of what is needed these days in the classroom and they must do this by starting to work outside the constraints of the curriculum. Dr. Kristopher Lovell from Coventry University mentioned that he had designed an MA course around the issues of scholarly writing, driven by his unfortunate experience where he had graduated with a PhD without anyone ever teaching him how to write a chapter versus writing a journal article. If these approaches are taken seriously, scholarly writing, publication, and research dissemination will completely metamorphose in the coming years in the continent. Africa will no longer be at the periphery of the global knowledge production.
This Op-Ed is part of the State of Scholarly Publishing and Research Dissemination in Africa Research Project which is hosted at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town. The research is funded by the Open Society Foundation.