Guest Article #57

Communicating Clearly: Writeshops for Developing Country Scientists

Over the last decade there have been numerous calls of alarm at how few peer-reviewed journal articles on environment and development issues are actually authored by developing country scientists. Without doubt, writing an article for peer-reviewed journals is a challenge for everyone. The process is competitive and at times very critical, and many academics decry it as the one of the tortures that comes with the profession. Most of us need years of practice before we can pull off the perfect paper – if we ever reach that stage. But developing country scientists are faced with additional challenges. For many, there is a huge gap in capacity that comes both from lack of training and experience as well as the research environment. The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) and other partners are helping to close that gap. In a series of ‘writeshops', early-career scientists and practitioners are building their writing skills to allow their research findings to reach decision makers and a global audience.

In the current era of information overflow, one must communicate exceptionally well to influence decision makers and reach out with a message. This applies equally to scientific articles. With the proliferation of journals geared at the interface between environment and development issues, competition for readers' attention is as tight as ever. And yet with better Internet connections and more online publications, it is now easier to reach a larger audience. A wider reach means that a message can have a more profound impact. It is not enough to do interesting research leading to worthwhile conclusions; you must present the research and formulate the conclusions clearly and concisely. To navigate your way through the obstacle course that is the peer-review process, a clear strategy is necessary and must be executed with talent and determination.

In setting up the journal Climate and Development, SEI aimed to elicit more submissions from developing country scientists, without suggesting that the criteria or review process would be more lenient for them. SEI choose not to work individually with each author as editors, as this is both time-consuming for the journal and provides limited lessons for the authors. We realised that the most effective way to address the problem would be to get at the heart of it by providing training. SEI therefore developed the idea of a writeshop that would help scientists and practitioners who have already done interesting research to develop their ability to write a robust research paper that could stand up to the peer-review process.

In 2010 UN/ISDR approached SEI with shared concerns about wanting to support developing country authors' writing skills. They recognised that there are a growing number of scientists in developing countries doing research on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction (DRR). Most of their work still ends up in NGO reports or is not written up in an accessible way at all. SEI and UN/ISDR therefore decided to run a series of writeshops that aim to span every developing country region.

The writeshops are modelled on the various steps in the writing of a peer-review article, from identifying what research outcomes are worth writing about through to responding to reviewer comments. We work with mentors who are each assigned a small group of participants through a combination of lectures and exercises. Two out of five days are set aside for writing, supported by occasional meetings with the mentor checking on progress.

The first writeshop in the series was held in Bangkok in September 2010, and a second one for Anglophone Africa was conducted in Accra in February 2011. Applications for both were overwhelming: around 115 researchers from across Asia applied for the first writeshop, and over 70 African scientists applied for the second one. Feedback has so far been encouraging, and results are becoming tangible. Most participants continue to work actively with their mentors, and a few have submitted their papers to journals. In 2011, there will be additional writeshops held for small island developing States (SIDS), Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East, and Francophone Africa.

The writeshops must be thought of as a project, since we are sharing lessons learnt from experience. While there are several models of writing training to draw on, the writeshop concept and approach are unique. The interest and demand is high and, as the word spreads, it is likely to increase. Consequently, SEI is in dialogue with several partners about how to create a permanent writeshop series. This requires dependable and adequate funding, because to make the writeshops successful, there is a sizeable cost. We are now taking steps towards building a substantial body of peer-reviewed knowledge on climate change and development, but there is still a need for further improvements.

Partnership opportunities: The writeshops are hosted by a local organisation, and many of the participants and mentors rely on their own organisations to support their involvement. Until now, SEI has successfully partnered with the UN University (UNU) in Tokyo, the UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, and the Global Change SysTem for Analysis Research and Training (START). SEI welcomes additional partners for future collaboration.

For more information about the writeshops and future collaboration, contact Lisa Schipper at lisa.schipper@sei.se