“I want to help build the capacity of African Researchers so that they can conduct their own research without needing to rely on researchers in the global north” (Professor Claire Quinn)
The Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) organised an 11-day Science Communication and Publication Write Shop in South Africa for their research fellows from across six African countries: South Africa, Malawi, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania. The Write Shop aimed to strengthen the writing capabilities of the fellows and also provided them with a networking opportunity.
The central aim of FSNet-Africa is to design and implement food systems research in partnership with stakeholders in order to identify solutions that can bring about sustainable change in African food systems. To achieve this, FSNet-Africa offers a two-year fellowship to early-career researchers. The first (current) cohort started in July 2021 and will conclude their research by December 2023. The fellows come from ten African academic institutions namely, University of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University of Nairobi, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resource, Malawi University of Science and Technology, University of Pretoria, University of the Western Cape, Sokoine University of Agriculture, University of Dar es Salaam, and the University of Zambia. To build their capacity and research networks in impact-focused interdisciplinary research related to African food systems, the fellows are partnered with mentors – one from the University of Leeds (UK) and another from an African institution – to form a research triad. Each triad is also linked to a University of Pretoria (UP) researcher (called a UP Host) and other stakeholders with similar interests. Fellows receive funding to implement their project and to participate in key training and events throughout the fellowship, such as the Science Communication and Publication Write Shop.
During one of the sessions, Principal Investigator and Director of FSNet-Africa, Prof. Frans Swanepoel, and Co-Director, Prof. Claire Quinn, echoed the project vision of investing in the capacity building of African early-career researchers so they can lead in high-level food systems research to ensure sustainable change across the African continent.
Science Communication and Publication Write Shop
Some of the deliverables expected from the fellows are a peer-reviewed publication in a science journal and a policy or practice output. To support the fellows in achieving these outputs, the Write Shop was designed to offer support through training sessions aimed at strengthening their academic writing skills, dedicated time focused solely on writing, as well as training on effective science communication through various media/platforms. The Write Shop consisted of writing blocks; in-person and online support sessions, panel discussions, presentations, and question-and-answer sessions from expert facilitators, trainers, and mentors; as well as triad meetings. One day was also spent focussing on grant writing and management. The last three days focused on science communications training. Another crucial feature of this Write Shop was the networking amongst the fellows, mentors, UP Hosts, and FSNet-Africa team members.
There are several broader lessons and takeaways from the FSNet-Africa Science Communication and Publication Write Shop that could be valuable to other programmes hoping to design and deliver effective science writing training, where you build capacity and effectively utilise the wealth of knowledge to be found amongst the team members themselves.
1. Create a Space for Learning and Support
The whole Write Shop was intentionally designed with activities, tasks, self-reflection, group work, and icebreakers that offered various forms of support for academic and science communications writing.
Ice breakers and group sessions: The ice breaker and introduction by Dr Melody Mentz-Coetzee is an example of a component that offered fellows the opportunity to self-reflect and identify their current stage of writing – whether blank page, analysis, write up, addressing comments, or finalising. This was a fairly simple exercise, yet it built the foundations for the rest of the sessions and support one could access throughout the five days. Those that identified as being at the write up stage, for instance, were grouped together and mentors such as Prof. Claire Quinn, Prof. Julian May, and Prof. Andy Dougill, were assigned to offer tailored support to this group. Various types of practical techniques were taught, and fellows were challenged to use strategies and writing tips that resonated with them the most. Those in the addressing comments stage were also given a platform where they could ask their own individual questions, get advice relating to journal reviews and comments, as well as obtain support to overcome barriers blocking their progress.
Image 1: Dr Melody Mentz-Coetzee during the first icebreaker
Structured sessions: A number of structured sessions formed part of the write shop. These sessions covered various aspects of the writing process, from setting expectations and goals for the Write Shop, to actual writing, journal selection, submission, and handling feedback from reviewers. The following were some of the sessions that formed part of the Write Shop: identifying the right journal and predatory journals; authorship and author responsibilities; data management and presenting your data; incorporating policy impact into your article; preparing and submitting your manuscript; handling feedback from reviewers; and dealing with rejection. These sessions were delivered both in person and online by specialists and experienced professionals offering practical advice and applicable knowledge relevant to the stage where the fellows are at in their writing process.
Image 2: Prof. Andy Dougill presenting on what makes a great paper
Grant writing session: The Write Shop also included a special one-day session that primarily focused on applying for grants. Two members of the Research and Innovation Team from the University of Leeds, Dr Susannah Hopson and Dr Siân Evans, facilitated the session, which included input from other research and innovation teams such as those from Future Africa and African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). The activities included online presentations on available and relevant funding calls that the fellows can target and apply for. Group activities and a panel discussion were also used, where fellows had an opportunity to identify good grant proposals and ask questions related to searching and applying for research grants.
Image 3: Dr Sián Evans during the grants session
Day Recaps: Each day started with a recap for the previous day. These served as reminders as well as a chance for reflection on the content of the previous day and how to build on what was covered going forward. Fellows thus had multiple opportunities to ask questions, comment, and seek clarification. Daily recaps were not only thought-provoking and technical, the FSNet-Africa team varied the experience to include the more relaxed social and networking events that took place outside of the scheduled day timetable. Social awards and questions on paper planes offered a fun and more relaxed learning environment on fully packed days.
Image 4: Recap-questions by paper planes
2. Utilise and build on the existing knowledge and networks
FSNet-Africa fellows are drawn from eleven African academic institutions. The fellows hold full-time academic and research posts in these institutions and have a wealth of knowledge among themselves. The design of the Write Shop, therefore, also took advantage of this wealth of knowledge and incorporated it as part of the learning platform.
Group Discussions: Several sessions involved group discussions, where fellows lead discussions drawing and sharing from their own experiences. There was a wealth of practical knowledge that the fellows learned from each other’s experience and skills. For instance, on how to deal with publication rejection, Dr Bridget Umar shared how she uses rejections as a means of gaining pointers on how to improve her manuscript for publication in high-impact journals. Dr Natasha Mwila shared how the reference list for her manuscript informs the suggested reviewers for the journals when one is requested to provide reviewers. The authorship and author’s responsibilities led by Prof. Claire Quinn and Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa had the fellows share their own experiences based on their home institution’s expectations of author responsibilities and how these have an effect on their own career progression milestones within their institutions. The FSNet-Africa publication guidelines reflect some of these experiences in the choice of journals and co-authorship expectations. The group discussions were also informative and sparked relevant conversations on how to advance African journals and publications as a community of early-career African researchers with a common interest.
Image 5: Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa during group discussions
Q and A (and C): All the sessions that were delivered throughout the Write Shop include a Q and A at the end of the session. Drawing from the synthesis of the acquired knowledge and their own experience, fellows’ questions contributed to the practical learning aspect and encouraged further inquiry on the subject. What was more informative was that the design of the Write Shop session encouraged comments. Therefore, within each session in progress were ten more potential learning avenues/context drawn from 20 fellows’ individual experiences and knowledge at any one time.
Let them Write: The Write Shop was indeed in the name, writing. Four hours every day of dedicated writing is more than what most of the fellows present would afford within their normal working hours. As early career researchers, between teaching, administration work, fieldwork and departmental meetings, it is a rare privilege to have four solid hours just to write. Through this Write Shop and the support provided, the fellows had an opportunity to focus on writing and make progress on their manuscripts. Given that setting writing goals for the Write Shop and the strategies were intentionally set on day one, the writing for the rest of the days was also intentional and targeted to achieve the set goals. Not an FSNet- Africa fellow myself, but a beneficiary through the partners; University of Leeds, I completed and submitted my manuscript and the concept note I had set as my writing goals as did other fellows by the last day of the Write Shop.
In conclusion, the decision to include a Write Shop as part of the key events for the FSNet-Africa two-year fellowship at this stage in the fellowship could not have come at a better time. The writing session not only presented the fellows with academic writing support but also writing blocks to implement what was learned in the writing slots. The strategic decisions to utilise the fellows’ own knowledge and experiences make this Write Shop stand out. Given that the overarching goal of FSNet-Africa fellowship program is to enable early career researchers to develop their skills to translate and communicate their research effectively to diverse audiences, this Write Shop is a leap in the right direction. The challenges with finding eleven full days that work for all fellows despite their other commitments, adjusting to changes in weather, long flights and other travelling hiccups as experienced by some of the fellows and mentors were well worth the opportunity to attend. The choice of the location, a quiet picturesque safari destination in South Africa, with good conference amenities, accommodation and food, was the perfect environment for writing. Optimistically, as the first Write Shop organised for FSNet-Africa fellows, I am looking forward to the next early-career research program; The Stakeholder Engagement Dialogue. This key event builds on this Write Shop to create conducive learning spaces and support for developing early career researchers and the practical impact of their research on stakeholders.