There is a commonly-cited adage in academia, "publish or perish". Although an exaggeration, the phrase encapsulates a reality of contemporary research: publishing one's research – particularly in journals – is a cornerstone of a successful career. Further, as money, time, and effort go into conducting research, it is the responsibility of the academic to ensure that as many people as possible find out about what this work reveals.
Being published, however, is easier said than done: writers' block, submission deadlines, and challenging peer-reviews are but a few of the hurdles which lead papers-in-the-making to falter and fade away. In countries only recently beginning to contribute to the international academy, the ill-effects of these barriers are amplified. To ensure that global Southern views and news can enter the global academic space, there is an urgent need to cultivate understanding around publishing on the continent.
This October, Professor Leslie Swartz of the Psychology Department, and Masters student Xanthe Hunt, visited Zomba, Malawi, to address just such a need. The visit was funded partly by the Doctoral Capacity Development Programme at the African Doctoral Academy (ADA) at Stellenbosch University International, and was conducted under the auspices of the partnership agreement between Stellenbosch University and University of Malawi
A two-and-a-half day writing workshop was convened by Swartz, in collaboration with Professor Blessings Chinsinga of the Centre for Social Research at University of Malawi, and Professor Alister Munthali, and was attended by 14 academics from various departments at the University of Malawi. The group consisted of early career researchers, as well as seasoned academics, and had representatives from numerous fields, including political science, theology, library and information sciences, and anthropology. Prof Chiwoza Bandawe, outgoing editor of the Malawi Medical Journal, and former Head of the Department of Mental Health at University of Malawi was also in attendance on the final day.
The first day saw Swartz, who is on the editorial board of a number of prominent academic publications and is the editor in chief of the African Journal of Disability, introduce the group to the principles and purpose of academic publishing. This was followed by an interactive afternoon session, during which Swartz and Hunt worked with the attendees on their own.
Swartz, who has been conducting such trainings in South Africa and other African countries for some years highlighted the importance of working with attendees on their own manuscripts during such trainings.
"The best learning in this context comes from engagement with the actual experience of writing and especially in dealing with reviewer comments, which are often phrased in dismissive and unflattering terms. Sharing struggles around writing, using actual examples, helps to minimize anxiety and avoidance of the process," explained Swartz.
Swartz also noted that emphasizing interaction – and asking attendees to determine their own priorities for writing workshops – ensures that the sessions are relevant, and make the most of the time available.
In line with this, the second day involved a presentation by Hunt on the mechanics of writing a manuscript, which was followed by a feedback session from the group. They requested that the remaining time be allocated to a "crash course" on thematic analysis (TA). TA is widely employed in the social sciences as a qualitative research methodology, and involves analysing textual data (words from research subjects, in the form of interview transcripts, for instance). The course then concluded on the third day with a research methods session by Hunt, who is currently employing TA within her thesis.
Research methods are the building blocks from which good research is built; good writing puts polish on the finished product, and helps to ensure its dissemination.
"In the future, it will be important for workshops such as this one to incorporate day-long sessions on every step of the research process, as well as the presentation process," said Hunt, adding that short workshops are important in order to stimulate discussion around priority areas for future workshops.
The Malawian contingent have expressed their interest in a second, more detailed workshop, and Swartz says that he is optimistic about the prospect of piloting such an expanded agenda in Malawi.
"The quality of the research being conducted here is high," he concluded, "and I look forward to a continued collaboration with this engaged and engaging group."