Teaching Scientists in Developing Countries to Write

Kenyan scientist Faridah Hussein Were found it tough to publish her research in top journals until she took a new course designed by AuthorAID and Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth that taught her how to write for international journals.
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Kenyan scientist Faridah Hussein Were found it tough to publish her research in top journals until she took a new course designed by AuthorAID and Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth that taught her how to write for international journals.

Many scientists in developing countries need to master top-level grammar, spelling and syntax. They also must meet strict quality standards that guard against plagiarism. This includes understanding the nuances of attribution to sources and the fine line between paraphrasing and copying, even of oneself.

Ethics looms large in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, and many scientists in developing countries lack training and experience in meeting the standards expected. They also lack the funding to take time off from teaching and other jobs to do extensive review of published materials.

This made it hard for specialists such as Were in the field of environmental health to get ground-level research and analysis into the international debates that shape the future world.

What changed things for Were and a few score scientists is that she took a course to improve technical writing and editing skills with an eye to getting the views of scientists from the developing countries into world-class journals.

"The [joint AuthorAID/Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth] course came in at the right moment," said Were by email from Kenya.

"I had just completed my Ph.D. program and the AuthorAID course filled the gap by enhancing my writing skills that was not offered in my conventional education system."

The course involved preparing manuscripts for submission and presentation at conferences; and writing concept notes to seek support and mobilize funds to disseminate research findings.

"The writing course brought about my personal growth in my environmental-health research field," said Were.

The online course in writing for publication in peer-reviewed journals was created by:
  • AuthorAID -- a project of the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications, INASP, which helps developing-country researchers to publish and communicate their research.
  • Blacksmith Institute, a non-profit group (also known as Pure Earth) that cleans up toxic waste sites in 40 developing countries, especially lead, chromium, pesticides, mercury and other threats to human health.
  • Blacksmith publishes the Journal of Health and Pollution (JH&P) whose editors had seen many examples of useful research on vital health issues that failed to meet publication standards.

    So the idea dawned on Sandy Page-Cook, Managing Editor of the journal, to offer targeted writing courses to environmental-health scientists and help them get the ear of the world academic and donor community.

    "Some scientists are at a disadvantage - they have no funds to support the write up of their research," said Page-Cook by telephone from New York.

    "As a result, not enough is written and published about the effects of toxic pollution in low and middle income countries."

    The result of this disparity in publication means, said Page-Cook, that "we are missing the full picture, missing local information. Research is going on but it is not known among funders of the world."

    Blacksmith discovered in recent years that local experts in areas of toxic pollution had learned many useful things about the way pollution is spread, its effect on fish and water and the alternative means of mining and production that reduce health threats.

    But that information was blocked off from the World Bank, European aid agencies and others who have the vast funding needed to deal with threats to human health from pollution.

    Elsewhere researchers found some fish had different abilities to take up toxic substances in various locations; and that nutrition affects toxic intake.

    AuthorAID provides some support and mentoring not always available in lower and middle-income countries, said Page-Cook. INASP and other initiatives are working to improve access and the visibility and quality of local journals as another avenue for publication of this research.

    AuthorAID and Blacksmith Institute have delivered three five-week environmental health courses to 110 researchers from low- and middle-income countries. These followed workshops delivered to researchers in other subject areas. The courses included self-paced lessons each week and a discussion board.

    Each student was required to submit an abstract of their work for discussion and; they had their draft titles edited by peers. Plagiarism was tackled in a quiz.

    Next year the course will expand to 10 weeks. Says Page-Cook: "We are excited about the expansion of the course. It will allow us to delve deeply into complex topics, and allow for more practice."

    "We hope to increase the rate of scientific environmental health articles coming from our partner countries. We are also very pleased that Blacksmith Institute and AuthorAID will continue to partner in this way. AuthorAID has a wealth of experience in training researchers how to write"

    Ben Barber is a communications advisor to Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth.

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