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[KUMASI, GHANA] Ask master’s and doctoral students in African universities about academic writing and you may hear about the challenges they face.

As I looked at the bewildered faces of early career researchers specialising in water, sanitation and health while they were listening to a seminar on academic writing, I could understand what they were probably thinking.

The seminar, which was organised as part of 2nd SNOWS (Scientists Networked for Outcomes of Water and Sanitation) Science Conference for Early Career Scientists Working Africa, in Ghana this week (20 May) discussed common academic writing problems faced by researchers and how to address them.

The era when students completed their theses and left them to literally rot in academic institutions should be a thing of the past.

Bernard Appiah

Paul Raymond Hunter, a professor of social protection at the UK-based University of East Anglia, kept 50 participants— from Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, United Kingdom and Uganda — engaged as he spoke about general guidelines on academic writing and how to address issues related to sections such as the introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusions.

He noted that most students often write sentences that are too long. “Many PhD students seem to think that writing very long sentences is a sign of emotional maturity,” Hunter said. “It’s actually a deadly sin.”

As some participants narrated how supervisors encourage them to write longer theses, then came a contribution from Samuel Nii Odai, the director of theWellcome Trust-funded SNOWS consortium, which even surprised most participants.

“My PhD thesis which I wrote while being a student at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology had 90 pages. I felt embarrassed that my peers had longer pages,” said Odai, who is also the pro-vice chancellor of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana.  “But I published six strong papers from it. I think publishing concise theses is an art and a skill.”

Hunter noted that most people often struggle with the discussion section. He indicated that the main findings should be stated in the first paragraphs. He advised researchers against introducing new results or repeating results in the discussion section.

Hunter was particularly critical of development researchers who value their research to the extent that even if their results do not support their hypotheses, they conclude that their studies are making impacts in people’s lives.

Hunter told participants to realise that rejection of manuscripts is common for those who write manuscripts, noting that researchers are second to salespeople in receiving rejections. “If your manuscripts are not getting rejected, then you are not being ambitious enough,” Hunter said, adding that researchers should send their manuscripts to credible journals.

The seminar discussed aspects of academic writing issues that particularly concern women researchers. Elizabeth Oloruntoba, a senior lecturer and a consultant in environmental health sciences at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, asked: “We are told to write in a congenial environment but how can we not feel guilty of academic writing in a house when a child is crying?”

Indeed, judging from the number and quality of concerns that the participants raised during and at the end of the seminar, I felt that academic writing in African institutions need to be promoted.

The era when students completed their theses and left them to literally rot in academic institutions should be a thing of the past.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.