Last September, TReND welcomed 15 students to the first Scientific Writing and Communication Course. These scientists, selected from a very large number of applications came from six African countries including Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and TReND’s first participant from Senegal. The course looked at a broad range of aspects of science communication from the research paper to the online blog. Participants’ attempts at turning a piece of research into a newspaper feature article can be found on the course blog, a repository that serves to gain feedback and comments from the online science communication community for participants of TReND’s Science Communication courses.
We are very grateful to the Elsevier Foundation, Training Centre in Communication (TCC), Sunbird Hotels, Mendeley, individual crowdfund donors and the local organisation team at Chancellor College for support on what was a fun and productive course.
To read more:
The course has been developed to target young scientists at the early stages of their careers. The aim is to enable the scientists to reach out to the broadest audience with their research, not only by strong journal publications but through skills to communicate with the public, the press and policyholders as well.
With such a broad scope intended by the course, fitting all the training material into the available week was a major challenge. Though scientific writing is just a form of scientific communication, Andrew decided it was simpler to roughly divide the week to look at the two aspects in turn. This division also suited the participation by TCC in the second half of the week.
In the first half of the week, Andrew lead the fifteen students through the scientific manuscript and publication process and the specialist skills that are needed to write a good journal article, an article that other scientists will want to read. The first day looked at what makes an article more readable, starting by dissecting a selection of journal articles, paying attention to how we read through them to see where most attention is directed, and thinking about the purpose of each section. This was a recap for some of the participants but it was intended to give them a new angle on the manuscript writing process to see how papers are read and how that should affect writing. With limited time we were unable to write whole papers for each of the participants, so instead, on the second day, we focused on the abstract as it is one of the most important components of any journal article and has a large audience. The major practical session of the second day was to write abstracts for papers that had already been published but the original abstract had been blanked out. Pleasingly most of the abstracts were better than the originals. The second day also looked at those aspects of writing that are needed before any words go on the page. We looked at how to get access to research, using Research4Life schemes and using the advanced features of Pubmed and Google Scholar to find articles for a literature review. The Pubmed and Google Scholar exercise revealed how the two search databases differ and how they can be used in concert to produce the most effective search. Training was also given on Mendeley, a software and community that allows you to organise papers, discuss research with other users of the platform and insert citations directly into manuscripts using your personal Mendeley database.
On the third, fourth and fifth days, the participants were guided through the broader aspects of scientific communication such as conference posters, scientific discussion panels, newspaper-style articles based on recent research, policy briefs, and briefly, how to summarise your work for a public audience through Three Minute Thesis style talks. These days were highly interactive, with lots of group work and discussion. The third day had two main activities. In the first, a roleplay exercise, each group presented a panel discussion on a topic relevant to multiple stakeholders such as international aid agencies, government and the general public. The members of the group divided themselves into roles such as the panel members, the chairperson or the audience, each member discussing their role after the exercise to see what they needed to take into consideration to effectively communicate their message or convey their question. The second exercise was to draft out posters that presented their work, presenting them to the rest of the group at the end of the day. This gave each participant a chance to focus on what their key results are, how to convey that visually and how to lead an interested individual through the poster.
The fourth day was a difficult day for most of the participants as it was their first foray into written science communication. The participants worked in four groups taking key messages from a piece of recent research and adding a narrative that suited a newspaper-style article that could be understood by members of the general public. The articles were posted on a blog to gain live feedback from the internet. On the fifth day, TCC led the participants into the world of policy briefs, explaining how to influence policymakers with data and challenging the participants to produce a brief based on the same research that they used the previous day to write the newspaper article. This exercise emphasised how two audiences differ in their requirements and how one piece of research can be written about in completely different ways. Due to the high workload, unfortunately there was not much time left for the three minute thesis style talks. However, each participant used the little time available to prepare and give a short introduction to themselves, their work and why it is important in three minutes or less. The talks were recorded and given to each participant for self-learning.
The final day was a time to consolidate with a question and answer session on any topic from the week. Andrew discussed material that can be used to continue learning, including AuthorAID, an online network that connects researchers with mentors to help them with their scientific writing, and encouraged each participant to join and find a mentor.
The course closed with a certificate presentation ceremony by the Dean of Science at Chancellor College. It was an intense but enjoyable 6 days!
An interview with organiser and lead facilitator Andrew Beale can be found on Research4Life’s blog and a personal reflection on his journey to developing and leading the course can be found on the Royal Institution’s blog.