Academic Writing for International Graduate Students

Challenges of Academic Writing for International Students

Academic writing is not an easy journey for all. International students aiming to publish research articles in academic journals in the Global North/Western academia face a range of challenges to achieve their goal. With English as their second or third language in most cases, it is often difficult to make the transition to writing in the language academically and structure their articles to clearly present their arguments. Additionally, it is challenging for writers to identify suitable journals for publication and be aware of issues such as plagiarism that may adversely impact their writing.

The Sustainable Futures in Writing is a series of yearlong workshops that aim to address these challenges and support international writers and researchers from the Global South/Africa, South Asia and South America on their journey towards academic publication. A cohort of 15 writers are currently in the process of developing their journal articles with mentor and peer support for publication in academic journals. Some of the mentors and mentees are from the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network – you can learn more about the network here. In this blog we share some academic writing features and top tips that our writers benefited from during the workshops.

Academic Writing Features

Academic writing is characterised by some key features, some of the most important being the use of formal language, clear communication and supporting your claims with established referencing standards. It is important to use accurate vocabulary, be objective and present a well-planned argument. Professor of Education Pat Thomson discusses finding your angle in a piece of academic writing and encourages us to ask a series of key questions:

  1. What’s the paper about? (the field and the paper focus)
  2. Who is the reader? (What’s the journal)
  3. What does the reader already know about the topic? What’s the usual way that the topic is discussed? (What’s already in the scholarly conversation in the journal in particular and the field)
  4. What’s the new approach that your paper will offer? (Why will the reader find this angle of interest?)

Academic Writing and Publishing - Top Tips

A very helpful list of top tips shared by journal editors during one of the workshops:

  • Be brave and tread your own path!
  • Focus on your topic and take your time to write.
  • Look at how other writers make their arguments.
  • Read journals to keep up to speed with what’s going on in your field.
  • Read the editorial guidelines and submit to journals fitting to your work.
  • Consider what’s been published this year, or last year. How does your article speak to these issues?
  • Be resilient.
  • Think about whether you might write to the editor in advance, to try to establish a relationship or gauge interest.
  • Foreground your ‘big idea’ clearly and soon in your submission. In your opening paragraphs, in your abstract, and in your cover letter, try to be distinct with your big idea to get the attention and buy in of your editor and reviewers.
  • Journals are a community and editors may well be connected in some way. Think about who the community you’re trying to speak to is.
  • Include references to articles that have been published in the journal you’re targeting.
  • Read and respond to editorial comments. You might choose what to respond to, or you might respond to everything, even if just to briefly acknowledge and explain why you don’t think this would be an appropriate change.
  • If you really disagree with something in one reviewer’s approach, you can talk to the editor.
  • Remember, you can withdraw your paper if you feel its integrity has been compromised (rather than your pride or your time!)
  • Ideas feel like our own when we are working on our own, but they are influenced by a much bigger conversation. The review process can help you as you build something new to contribute to this conversation.
  • We don’t write in isolation. There is generosity in reviewing papers to try to strengthen the quality of work. Sometimes we take our personal context as universal. A reviewer can help us understand what might not be obvious to a reader from outside this context.
  • Being vulnerable is hard but it can allow your ideas to flow. But: choose your journal – does it value this approach?
  • Different pieces take different amounts of time to complete, and to place.


Nurturing academic writing through a community of practice

By Sundas Mahar and Dr Mia Perry,

It is hard to publish interdisciplinary research, especially with limited time, limited resources, and audiences that may be far removed from the communities you work with. Much interdisciplinary and important experimental work goes on outside of the awareness of mainstream international academic audiences because academic publishing is a specialised skill set, structured in ways that don’t easily allow for new voices or new ways of communicating. The Art of Transdisciplinary Research Communications: Sustainable Futures in Writing is a year-long project (funded by The British Academy) of writing, creation, collaboration and mentorship aimed to address this challenge.

The project is designed to support early career social science and arts researchers in sustainability, from Africa, South America, and South Asia to develop their work for international publication and dissemination. SF Network members, Dr Zoe Strachan and Mia Perry from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and Professor George Olusola Ajibade from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, lead this project with critical support from SF Network Manager, Vanessa Duclos, Research Assistant, Sundas Mahar, and an expert team of writing mentors from across the network.

The workshops could not accommodate the demand of applications, so fifteen early career writers were selected to take part in this first iteration of Sustainable Futures in Writing. The first of three online workshops took place in October 2021. The cohort of writers shared projects, plans, and fears; we explored author voices, writing practices, and journal processes. After this initial phase of work, the writers produced their first blog posts about their writing topic and plans which can be found here.

Hurrah, I am encouraged to write and be a good writer” (Grace Awosanmi)

In the second workshop in mid-November 2021, the cohort met journal editors and creative writers from various contexts. We explored the range of knowledge exchange activities that impact audience engagement, and we considered issues related to writing with and for social justice and equity. Writers began to work through peer critique sessions and established personal goals and plans for the progress of their projects.

“This is a collaboration of people who wanted to change the world and make it a better place to live” (Abhinand Kishore)

Throughout the project, the writers have kept in touch with a designated mentor, had one-to-one meetings, and ongoing support on their journey.  We are now heading towards our third and final series of workshops in which we will be working with complete (or nearly complete) drafts of work, journal submission requirements, and dissemination plans. Watch this space for announcements about a public presentation and celebration of this work, and hopefully not long after that, the publications themselves!


Congratulations to Dr Mia Perry - Winner of a Research Culture Award

By Vanessa Duclos, Research Manager

Please join us in celebrating Dr Mia Perry, SFA Network Co-founder and Co-Director, who has been awarded the Research Culture Award 2021 at the University of Glasgow.

The University of Glasgow defines a positive culture as one in which colleagues

  • are recognised and valued for their varied contributions to research
  • support each other to succeed
  • are supported to produce work that meets the highest standards of academic rigour

Key values that are promoted are research integrity, open research, recognition for varied contributions to research, fair approaches to evaluation and collegiality.

“Dr Mia Perry was nominated by a number of colleagues for her unsurpassed commitment across the University of Glasgow and beyond to research and development in the field of education and sustainable development.” 

Read full text here.

Congratulations Mia, from the SFA Family! It is an honour to work and learn with you.


Insights from LUANAR: CJIF project's successes

A JOURNEY TO THE PRODUCTION OF BIOGAS AND BIO-SYNGAS

By Dora Nyirenda, Research Administrator, LUANAR

Wastes being the unusable materials as they are, who would want to do anything with them? But as the saying goes, what can be seen irrelevant to a certain discipline can be relevant to another, for instance, one discipline can think agricultural and municipal wastes do not have any use but here are some scientists, academicians and local people who think that these wastes have the potential to produce energy to help in tackling the issues of climate change.

To validate this, a research project titled ‘Development of sustainable clean cooking facilities to boost resilience to climate change in Malawi’ was funded by the Scottish Government Climate Justice Innovation fund. Different partners namely LUANAR, Abundance worldwide, LEAD, University of Glasgow and Fab engineering partnered with Dr Nader Karimi to work on it. LUANAR’s aim was to conduct surveys on waste availability by studying agricultural and other organic wastes in different parts of the country especially in 6 districts of Nkhotakota and Lilongwe the central part of Malawi, Karonga and Mzimba districts the northern part of Malawi and Machinga specifically in Mbando village and Chikwawa district in the southern part of Malawi in Feb/March/ April of 2020. There after doing the chemical analyses of the wastes.

What an exciting opportunity for LUANAR to be part of the project as it triggered the minds to know more about agricultural and municipal wastes usefulness in production of energy. In Malawi, the general understanding has been that most agricultural wastes have performed poorly in production of biogas and bio-syngas and as such they have mainly been left idle leading to continued use of firewood that leads to deforestation. 

Well not anymore as different solutions are coming up through the use of municipal and agricultural wastes to produce bio-fuels which are then burned in a novel gas cooker. Indeed this will save Mother Malawi from high deforestation rate that it has recorded in the recent years in Africa (Ngwira S & Watanabe T, 2019).

Members from LUANAR conducted surveys in the mentioned districts, some of the common biomass and/ or organic wastes that were found and samples collected were cassava peelings, bean shells, rice husks, bagasse, molasses, maize bran, cow dung, sorghum stems, sorghum fruit, goat droppings and many more. Another waste that was mentioned that some members had responded was plastic wastes; well one would wonder if this is a biomass waste, right? Not strictly speaking though, the origin maybe biomass in fossil form. For some thoughts some might think to study on this and see if these plastics wastes can be useful in generating energy.

Interestingly, some respondents said that most of the crop and livestock wastes are used for crop production as a source of nutrients which is a very good use. Though this is the case, many of them demonstrated that such wastes were not adequately utilized which gives a window of using these wastes in the production of energy.

Bagasse being one such type of wastes that is produced in abundance by the sugar industries as well as residents in sugar growing areas, this waste was found that excess of it is left unused even after the sugar processing companies have burned it to produce electricity. Perhaps, this can be a raw material in areas where it is in excess to produce biogas and bio-syngas.

The waste sample raw materials that were collected were analysed for components that determine suitability of biomass for biogas and bio-syngas production. Carbon: Nitrogen (C: N) ration in the range of 10:30 was used to guide quality aspects related to the intended use. Fortunately, the sampled wastes were within the range that is suitable for biogas production. Most interestingly, all the chemical elements seen as impurities that would reduce the efficiency of the value of the biomass in the production of biogas in the sampled wastes were below the limits of copper (mg/kg) of 10.00, Zinc (mg/kg) 350.00, Nickel (mg/kg) 100 and Chromium (mg/kg) thresholds.

As successful as the surveys and analyses were, Mbando Village in Machinga district was ready to do the trials as the abundant wastes there were rice husks and cow dung. The trials are a success, biogas and bio-syngas are now being produced used for cooking at Mbando.

Laboratory used to analyse biomass wastes

Insights from Abundance: CJIF project's successes

Fuelling Environmental Conservation: Saving trees in Mbando community

By Stewart Paul, Abundance

In a country with very low access to electricity at 11 % (World Bank, 2020), Malawi is bound to a heavy reliance on biomass as fuel for cooking meals, both at small/household to medium/commercial scale. Between March 2020 and February 2021, I participated in a study on “Sustainable Clean Cooking Facilities to boost resilience to climate change in Malawi”. Funded by the Scottish Government’s Climate Justice Innovation Fund (CJIF), the project aimed to help address deforestation in southern Malawi (Machinga) through delivering a sustainable biofuel production using organic waste as fuel for clean and efficient cooking. Designed in Glasgow and built by FabEngineering in Blantyre, the technology might just be a long term solution towards curbing heavy reliance on charcoal and fuelwood for food preparation, especially at a medium scale.

Abundance’s Grace Moyo (left) and Ruth Mumba (Centre) meeting with FabEngineering’s Andrew Khonje (right)

From attending bi-weekly management meetings to leading data analysis of the 2 surveys conducted in Machinga district between September 2020 and January 2021 I would consider myself as having closely worked with the rest of the partners as well as Abundance team on this project. The first survey was on waste collectors analysing the waste collection process, preparation of food, collection of fuel for cooking and knowledge of the environmental impact of burning fuels for cooking. The major findings were that maize stalks are the most common waste type found in Mbando community and that the majority of the stalks are collected at a fee. Also, it is mainly women who prepare food and the preparation process takes around one hour. Whereas mixed views characterised our enquiry on the importance of knowing the fuel type being used, the majority of the survey respondents showed wide knowledge on the environmental impacts of burning fuels, which largely border on the destruction of the physical environment. By successfully designing, delivering and piloting a cooking technological innovation that does not use fuelwood, I am compelled to conclude that the project was a success and it delivered on its aim and objectives.

Soy-corn blend porridge prepared using one of the cookers during piloting

My contribution towards the overall success of the project was mainly attributed to the cordial working relationship with all the partners: LUANAR, FAB Engineering, LEAD and the University of Glasgow. I hope the outcomes and outputs from this project will be used for further research and development of the technology and thereby substantially contribute towards our common drive and urgency to reduce people’s reliance on the “lungs of the land” for food preparation. By training community members on how to use the tested technologies, the project ensured that the community continues to benefit and conserve the environment through its sustainable use.  Stakeholder engagements conducted towards the close of the project saw heightened participation and raised interest from crucial players in the area of energy such as the University of Malawi (Chancellor College and the Polytechnic) and the Scotland-Malawi partnership. Furthermore, the presentation of the project at the Machinga District Executive Committee (DEC) meeting was one of the key milestones as it ensures that the project is not only recognised but appreciated and appraised at the local government level.


Waste management training manual for primary schools

By Reagan Kandole, Executive Director of ECOaction

ECOaction and its partners (Sustainable Futures in Africa Network, Kampala City Council Authority, Makerere University, Design hub Kampala and the US Embassy) aim to promote and sustain proper solid waste management practices and environmental awareness within schools and communities in Kampala, Uganda. The team aims to teach educators and learners how reducing, reusing and recycling solid waste can make a difference to their school, community, and the environment.

ECOaction has the skills and resources to support this development of this knowledge and practice in schools. In 2019-2020, they worked with Environment and Sanitation clubs in primary schools across Kampala City, on the “Clean Air” project that aimed to help schools to achieve proper waste management. ECOaction and partners collaborated with a group of experts to develop a “tool kit” or teaching and learning manual for waste management and recycling in primary schools.

A curriculum specialist from Makerere University, Dr Leah Sikoyo, and Dr Mia Perry from the University of Glasgow have co-developed the manual with ECOaction community artists, and a local designer. The objective of this manual is to build upon ECOaction’s efforts to sensitize school children on environmental awareness. In particular, the resource relates to proper waste management, through hands-on practical activities relating to reusing and recycling everyday waste to generate useful products for various activities within the school and surrounding communities. The practices described contribute to a clean environment and sustainable livelihoods. The manual introduces the justifications, principles and practices of proper waste management and demonstrates how these can be integrated into the primary school curriculum through relevant themes and topics.

Two flexible and adaptable school projects are suggested in the manual through step-by-step instructions; curriculum thematic connections; and visual illustrations and examples. Finally, each activity is linked to out-of-school and community practices for the broader learning and development in family and community contexts. The extended team strongly believes that this manual provides a unique and powerful resource to schools at this time, and aims to increase the reach and impact of this resource as well as build upon it to develop other resources for educational use.


High Cost of Electricity Is A Major Cause of Climate Change

By Vanessa Duclos, Network Manager

SFA member and PhD student, Anthony Kadoma, has had his first piece of writing published in Uganda national newspaper ‘New Vision’. The article is titled ‘High Cost of Electricity Is A Major Cause of Climate Change’.

It is surprising that despite all our water bodies in form of lakes and rivers, including the River Nile, which is the longest river in Africa, the percentage of Ugandans with access to electricity is the lowest in eastern Africa save for Burundi and South Sudan. The percentage of the citizens that have access to power in the East African region as reported by the World Bank in 2018 was: Burundi (11.02%), South Sudan (22.03%), Uganda (26%), Rwanda (34.72), Tanzania (35.56%) and Kenya (75%). When it comes to the availability of water from where most of the power is generated, Uganda leads all the countries with almost 15% of her land covered by freshwater lakes and swamps. Kenya only has 1.93%, Rwanda 3% and Tanzania 6.49% of its total landmass covered by water and swamps. This clearly shows that Uganda has an advantage over its neighbours. Then the question is why do few Ugandans have access to electricity? One of the reasons is that the cost of accessing and using power is costly for most Ugandans.

There are connection costs, wiring costs, monthly bills to pay, repair costs as well as the cost resulting from the malfunctioning of power, which has been reported to cause huge losses. Another hidden cost is that of load shedding if intended or just the power disappearing without one being alerted. This has spoilt the user’s electricity gadgets with no one to compensate them.

The second reason is that the settlement patterns in Uganda make it so expensive and difficult to have many of the citizens connected to the national grid. Almost all the parts of Uganda are habitable resulting in the scattering of homesteads all over the country, making it hard for them to be connected to the national grid.

Thirdly, there has been mismanagement of some of the government efforts to increase connections to the national grid. Programmes like rural electrification, connecting all-district and sub-county headquarters as well as health facilities are all commendable, but inadequate and do not directly target individual households.

With a handful of Ugandans having electricity in their homes even though they use it for lighting other than cooking, there is a big challenge. Almost all Ugandans whether in urban or rural areas cook using charcoal. This charcoal that is derived from cutting down trees has contributed to a great loss in terms of their acreage.

To make matters worse, the water supplied by the National Water and Sewerage Corporation cannot be consumed unless boiled first because of line leakages. This means that more trees must be cut down for homes to have clean water to drink, adding to our already burdened environment. When the forests are cleared rainfall becomes unreliable, seasons unpredictable, dry seasons are prolonged, crop yields are low, and ultimately limited household incomes.


IMPACT STORY: How an SFA Webinar influenced the curricula of an educational institution in Malawi

By Dora Nyirenda, Research Administration, Malawi Hub

Edited by: Alex Maxwell, PGR, UK

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while most people were locked in their homes, the internet helped SFA continue to connect The SFA Malawi Hub was privileged to host a webinar with Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil on Ecosystem Based Disaster Risk Reduction at the end of April, 2020. The Director of Mzimba Christian Vocational School (MCVS) – a faith-based educational institution in Malawi which takes on ten students every year from across Malawi – and his staff, participated in the webinar which aimed at educating, informing and sharing knowledge on Ecosystem Disaster Risk Reduction. As an institution that tries to implement technology through applied research to develop solutions for the local context, the staff were able to learn examples of how ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction can be applied to disasters.  

The webinar was a knowledge sharing session, but could prove to have a deeper and longer-lasting impact for Malawi more generally, with the MCVS staff inspired to change their curricula to include thtopic. The curriculum developed through the webinar aims to tackle disasters such as floods, droughts, strong winds, and land-slidesLorent Mvulathe Director of Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Management of MCVS explains on how this is useful for the future of Malawians, Using the Ecosystem Based Disaster Risk Reduction information in the curriculum can help reduce vulnerability in exposed communities’It is believed that including ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction (EBDRR) in the curriculum will inform people and communities on the means to saving lives and peoples’ properties through critically thinking about the different ways to tackle everyday challenges. 

Staff believe the course will help students to understand the symbiotic interdependence between variables within the ecosystem which will then mitigate communities from destroying the local ecosystems. The knowledge gained can then be disseminated countrywide and support ecosystems across Malawi. There are additional requirements for the new curriculum to be successful, from teaching materials to building instructors capacities but it is believed that with this support, communities across Malawi will be better equipped and more resilient to dealing with the damaging effects from natural disasters.  

*Post based on an interview with Mzimba Christian Vocational School Director and Staff (Interviewer: Dora Nyirenda) 


February 2021 - Waste Management in primary schools

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December 2020 - Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation

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