The Academy hosted a workshop on “science writing” in early 2008 for selected individuals in the SADC countries, including South Africa. From that experience, a decision was made to explore a higher-impact and more sustainably beneficial approach to meeting needs in this area, possibly through the setting up of a free-online training course system, offering training via the internet at a number of levels. This could be hosted either by the Academy or by a consortium of institutions in partnership with the Academy.
Many South African institutions already offer a variety of short courses or services in scientific or scholarly writing for publication, not only to their own postgraduate students/staff, but also to interested (fee-paying) professionals from other organisations and institutions. Some of these offerings are based on continuous or periodic contact instruction, others are online, and yet others combine these modalities. While these efforts to satisfy a large perceived demand are undoubtedly valuable and effective, it is possible that a nationally coordinated, low cost-to-user online course system may greatly widen the scope of benefits, and permit over-stretched researchers at institutions to concentrate more on content than on enskilling issues, at least as far as writing for publication is concerned. It is possible that a cross-institutional “faculty of mentors”, including retirees, could be assembled to participate in the training programmes.
By providing some kind of certification, the proposed system may facilitate the (external) acquisition by postgraduates of various levels of science writing skills, and assist institutions in terms of project planning/execution and especially the benefit of students “taking personal responsibility” for aspects of their professional growth that seem often to be based operationally on tacit assumptions and short-term solutions. Certainly, many employers may welcome more concrete indications of the existence of such skills, which are often considered implicit in dissertation-based qualifications, but found in subsequent practice to be wanting.
A workshop was accordingly held in August 2008 involving subject specialists (drawn from many South African higher education institutions) most of whom were engaged in one way or the other with writing support for graduate students and young staff. There was strong support for the pursuit of the idea of a free-online course system in scholarly/scientific writing for formal publication that was built on 4 tiers, respectively:
Details of resources in the field, continuously updated and improved through feedback and effective intellectual oversight.
An interactive self-study lecture series on key topics in this area, drafted communally by experts and likewise kept up-to-date on the basis of feedback and oversight. The model for this is the free-online course offered by the World Federation of Science Journalists for its online course in science journalism accessible at: www.wfsj.org/course/
A system of enrolled mentors able to be linked by email or telephone to individual young scholars struggling to master specific publication-drafting tasks.
Occasional block short courses to enable face-to-face mentoring of groups of aspiring scholars/scientists to take place.