Special Articles / Ilango Ponnuswami, Abraham Francis and Nonie Harris / Scientific Writing and Publishing in Social Work
As early as 2001, Alter and Adkins, in their interesting article in Journal of Social Work Education, referred to the declining ability of social work students to write proficiently as a ‘writing crisis’ and reported the outcome of ‘Writing Counts’ a writing assistance programme at a graduate school of social work. This is one of the most serious issues with which the social work profession in India, especially in the context of the ‘not so good’ status of the profession in the country even after its successful existence for over 75 years. The western academia’s dictum of ‘publish or perish’ has somehow not yet fully caught up with the social work academic community in India. However, in recent times, owing to stiff competition for entry into faculty positions and thanks to the stricter guidelines of the apex higher educational body namely the University Grants Commission insisting on Academic Performance Indicators (API) scored on various parameters including publications, social work faculty members and aspirants have started showing interest in getting their research articles and books published. There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of ISSN classified journals and ISBN classified books during the last few years. Even though much remains to be desired with regard to the quality of publications, it is heartening to see the upsurge in interest to publish among social work faculty, doctoral and pre-doctoral (M.Phil) students and even MSW trainees.
Importance of scientific writing
In science, writing is the most important means of communicating research findings. In most cases, scientists report the results of their research activities in scientific journals in a rather standard scientific paper format. In a recent article entitled Developing the Writing Skills of Social Work Students: Connecting Academic and Professional Expertise, Hughes, Wainwright & Ward (2011) discuss howacademic writing skills support effective professional communication and research skills allow for evidence-based practice. We can assume that research not only describes what we do in practice but that it also provides the evidence on which our practice is based. There is an “important relationship between research and practice effectiveness” (Trevithick, 2012, p. 57). This connection between research and practice (an evidence base) is fundamental to the practice of all professions, but it is particularly relevant to the social work profession: “Practitioner research is potentially the most useful and relevant source of new knowledge for social work and service innovations” (Harvey, Plummer, Pighills & Pain, 2013, p. 2). McMahon (2008) also reminds us that it is our ‘job’ to write about what we do. It is not enough to ‘talk’ about the practice-based research we have done. Writing about our social work practice and research contributes to a knowledge foundation, educates others and passes our knowledge on to our fellow practitioners. McMahon (2008) urges us to become ‘published creators of knowledge” (p. 40) and thereby recognize the value of our knowledge and practice wisdom – of what we have learned. McMahon concludes his paper by emphasizing the following points relevant to our own deliberations:
First, as researchers, the real task is to create knowledge relevant to our discipline. Second, doing research is a process of self-empowerment for the individual researcher but empowerment can begin and end with the individual unless the message gets published and broadcast to the wider context (p. 49)
Clear communication requires an array of skills and competencies, a number of which clearly relate to a set of skills that might be developed through academic writing, including the ability to:
Ponnuswami and Francis (2012) expressed their concern about lack of originality and rampant plagiarism in the scientific social work publications blocking the progress of social work research in the country ultimately leading to lack of recognition of the profession. According to these authors, one of the major drawbacks is the lack of standard peer-reviewed publications in the field of social work in India. There are just a handful of good quality refereed social work journals. Most of the social work research studies are never published since there is a serious lack of ‘publication culture’ among the professionals. While some social work faculty and research scholars get their research papers published (at least for the sake of fulfilling requirements for their own career advancement), most of the practitioners in the field do not care much to write and publish even though their research works, if published, would make valuable contributions to the knowledge base of the profession and to the development of services for different client groups. This trend was also noted by Ramachandran in 1990 where the issues of research in India was more
…the adhoc nature of research work, and the consequent limited career opportunities in research and has , on the one hand , resulted in a tremendous wastage of trained personnel and on the other, created a dearth of workers. Added to this is the fact that formal research training is not deemed as essential pre-requisite for research jobs advertise by potential employers (p.108)
This situation has not changed much since then but we can see a renewed interest in the profession to embrace the spirit of evidence based practice. It is in this context the exercise such as this creates an opportunity for students to engage in writing and publishing not only to just show case their own individual researches but the wider social impact it can create in the society. But we now see a renewed interest among practitioners, students and academic is social work to share their research ideas and publish their work which is indeed a positive direction and this book itself is an example of such a positive approach to building culturally appropriate evidences in social work practice and education.
In Australia, as in most other countries of the global north, there is a strong tradition of academics publishing in peer-reviewed journals, with many high quality journals for the academic researcher to submit to. However, there is not a strong tradition of practitioners engaging either in primary research activities or writing about or submitting the results of their research (if undertaken) to scholarly journals. The answer to why this might be so is complicated. It is generally the case that a social work degree is undertaken because of a passion for social justice and a belief in the possibility of contributing to positive societal change. Research and writing about research are seldom part of this original vision. Harvey et al (2013) also argue that much of social work practice, which often requires the practitioner to rely on practice wisdom and thoughtful individualized interventions, does not easily lend itself to research based reflection and written transmission to others. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a shift in the Australian social work landscape with “Growing support from within social work for the development of an evidence based for practice, together with recent interpretations and models of EBP [evidence based practice] congruent with social work, have increased the momentum for research capacity building” (Harvey et al, 2013, p. 4). There is now an emphasis, both in the practice and university sectors, on giving voice to social work knowledge.Ponnuswami and Francis (2012) commented that -
A careful analysis of the present trends in social work research reveals that there are encouraging and healthy developments on the one side and almost seemingly insurmountable challenges facing social work researchers. What is needed in the present scenario is a serious and careful review of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relating to social work research in the country (p.xxvi)
Purposes of social work writing
First and foremost, social workers need to be clear about the purposes of scientific writing and publication in social work. Most of the social work trainees think of scientific writing as a mere academic requirement which is rather too cumbersome and boring. They fail to see social work writing as the most powerful means of communication with serious implications for the profession, clientele, the professionals and even the society at large. A majority of social work faculty members view scientific writing again as an essential requirement for their performance appraisal or career progress. On the other hand, social work practitioners doing tremendous work with different client groups in different settings seldom realize the importance of scientific writing and documentation of the enormous amount of practice-based knowledge and practice wisdom gathered by them over a long period. As a result of these, a vast majority of undergraduate, post graduate, pre-doctoral and doctoral research studies undertaken by students never get permanently documented in the form of publications. Most of the dissertations, term papers and theses end up in the shelves of libraries gathering dust. Especially with the current trend of digitization of publications and the tendency on the part of students and researchers to depend on digitized form of information, this enormous resource just gets lost. While this is the case with student dissertations and theses, just to fulfill the ever growing demand among social work faculty members to get papers published in peer-reviewed journals, we find a mushrooming of several online journals which claim to be refereed ones but the quality of majority of these journals is questionable (in fact, many of them do not have impact factor ratings, are not indexed in appropriate databases and are not recognized when one goes for faculty positions despite the fact these so called peer-reviewed journals have ISSN numbers and books have ISBN numbers). In the case of practitioners, there is hardly any scientific writing activity going on.
Falk and Ross (2001) reviewed nine purposes of social work writing--
The current context for higher education in India
By international comparison, the higher education participation rate in India is fairly low. According to OECD data (reported by the American National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education) College Enrolment is 10% among young adults aged 18-24.However, due to the size of the Indian population, this participation rate still amounts to well over ten million students. In 2002 the well-respected education scholar Suma Chitnis wrote:
Although enrolment is inadequate by comparative standards, the growth in the demand for higher education has been unmanageably large, rapid, and pressing. The centers of excellence have been protected. But the universities that constitute the backbone of the system have been stretched, their standards of teaching and of evaluation compromised in order to accommodate demand. As a consequence, education at Indian universities has deteriorated into an examination-driven, certificate-oriented exercise. The faculties of the arts and the humanities, which account for 60 percent of the total enrolments in the higher education in the country, have fared the worst (2002, p.19-20).
Generally the higher education system in India has been found to be examination-oriented and based almost entirely on the rote memory learning by the students without much importance given to development of analytical, critical and reflective skills.
An influential Indian academic recently commented on the current situation which serves as a fairly neat – if unforgiving – summary of the key issues faced by those involved with the Indian HE system:
Higher education in India is fragmented, scattered, and takes place in nearly 16,000 institutions called affiliated colleges, many of which are tiny and a trace better than higher secondary schools. They do not have libraries worth the name. Most of them have a faculty strength varying from 100 to 200 and the number of faculty with doctoral qualification is pitiably low or nil in many cases. These institutions of higher learning perform only classroom teaching, preparing students for examinations like tutorial colleges. The affiliating system, which dominates the Indian scene, has long been given up even in the country of its origin. It does not exist anywhere in the world barring India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (Kulandaiswamy in The Hindu, 18/05/2005)
Separation of teaching and research
One final important point to underline is the pronounced separation of teaching and research in Indian Higher Education. Cutting edge and world class research does take place in Indian research institutions as well as the central universities and is supported centrally by the government. It also happens in the university departments of some state universities (where graduate students have historically been taught), but the research process is far removed from the teaching of undergraduates, which mainly takes place in affiliated colleges.
Academic writing within the curriculum
Of course, students can learn – and many do – but difficulties with writing need to be identified early on and the support provision has to be in place. Indian programmes rely very heavily on written exams at the end of the study period, i.e. either the end of the semester or the end of the study year. Under the affiliating system, it is only the marking based on public examinations that counts. Academic writing and coursework do not form an integral part of most Indian curricula, which are dominated by assessment by examination. It is unsurprising then, that we could not find written rules or regulations pertaining to the offence of plagiarism when we asked during the fieldwork in India. The term ‘plagiarism’ is not necessarily meaningful – a more suitable alternative (following popular usage in India) would be ‘copy-paste’ which directly draws on the computer command that is often employed in the process.
Social work research and education
Through this process of education and upselling of the students and practitioners we aim to support the students to become a ‘research informed student’ (Walker, 2011, p.123). With this knowledge base students are able to critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, and to frame appropriate questions to achieve a solution to a problem. This exercise of conducting a workshop in India demonstrated a great interest among social work students. This will enhance them to analyses the current situations and use current knowledge for the best social work practice. In ‘becoming research informed’ student/ practitioner Hilary Walker (2011) suggested students to develop the habit of:
Social work facilitates social development and social cohesion. Core to social work is supporting people to influence their social environments to achieve sustainable wellbeing. The profession is underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, and indigenous knowledge. Principles of human rights, collective responsibility and social justice are fundamental to practice. (IFSW, 2013)
What are some of the current issues in social work writing and publication?
Writing is a core professional skill in social work practice (Healy, 2007, p.123). As practitioners, researchers and academics we are required to contribute to the knowledge base of the profession. Hence writing for publication injournals books and for conferences is essential to share ones practice experiences with a broad range of people and audience. We can find a variety of opportunities to publish our work and some of them are referred journals, edited books conference proceedings online journals etc. While there is a need to publish and disseminate information about practice experience, the reality is that many social work professionals do find it difficult to engage in this process of writing and publishing. Following are a list of issues which we were able to discuss at our workshop in 2013.
The importance of writing in social work is very crucial whether it is for obtaining funding or for establishing a point of reference in academic discussions. Healy(2005 cited in Healy 2007)comments that it is important that social work educators, students and professionals focus on developing their written communication skills for a range of reasons. According to this author, Writing is a core mode of communication in many fields of social work practice. The capacity to communicate effectively in writing can enhance practice in many ways, from promoting interdisciplinary team communication to advancing the capacity to attract funds and influence policy.Writing skills, like all professionals skills, can be learnt. Just as social work professionals can develop effective spoken communication skills, so too their professional writing skills can improve through sustained attention and effort.Written communication can represent complex matters better than speech alone. So it’s is a vital tool for social workers, who are often involved in complex situations with individuals, families and communities and need to be able to convey the intricacies to others who may have limited first-hand experience of the specific situations. In addition, some professional writing tasks, such as completing tender documents, can require the integration of detailed and complex information in a succinct and cohesive format. On the whole, social workers’ approach to writing should reflect the distinctive character of their professional purpose. This is shaped by the institutional context and audience, and must always be driven, at least in part, by professional knowledge and an ethical value base. (p.2-3)
What we have tried to highlight here, through this article, is that writing and publishing is an important aspect of social work training and practice. Through writing and publishing we are able to increase professional recognition of our practiceand create evidences that demonstrate a commitment to excellence in social work practice. It is the responsibility of all of us to engage in this process, (students, academics, social work institutions, social work practitioners and researchers) and together we can create a change in this field. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for social work fraternity in India.
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