By Hemant Ojha
Doing research on your own is not too difficult once its principles and methodologies are learnt. But mentoring other researchers to deliver quality research is extremely challenging. Mentoring is very different from managing people: while mentoring is about enlightening people, managing is about arranging people for a collective work.
Here I would like to share five key lessons I have learnt from mentoring researchers in qualitative research and scientific writing over the past 10 years. These insights emerged mostly from working with researchers in the Global South as well as in Australia across various sub-disciplines of knowledge such as environmental management, sustainable development, climate change, and urban resilience.
The first insight I have learnt is that researchers often fail to appreciate the importance of the role of logical structure in researching and writing. Qualitative research involves a continual process of learning and improvement, and at times, this principle tends to be misused as a license to ignore the importance of structure and logic in research and scientific writing. Emerging researchers tend to allow random thoughts and ideas to reign the structure of the paper. This habit too often persists even at the later stage of the research career. Mentoring challenge in this situation is to ensure a dynamic balance between a logical structure and a creative process of invention and discovery beyond preconceived frames of thinking and presuppositions.
The second insight I have is about the habit. Young researchers underestimate both the cost and potential benefits of putting quality time in research and writing. A myth that often misguides their thinking is – a good quality paper emerges from two to three rounds of writing and revision. In reality, even the best writers in the world will do five or more revisions of a paper before they actually get it published.
Another lesson I wish to highlight is the lack of attention to learning English as a medium of expression. For non-native English researchers, language is a key barrier. They have limited access to academic writing support if they are situated in the Global South. Even when there are English learning resources, they find it difficult to allocate enough time to learn to write more grammatically accurate English.
Still another challenge is that researchers often lack persistence and motivation to learn to analyse, write and improve the texts they have drafted. Several researchers who worked with did not have a habit of writing on a regular basis. Often, they needed some external push rather than internal motivation to produce a scientific paper. For some researchers, the work of research was just part of a job and not something that is linked to their inner process of motivation and ambition. My mentorship effort in such cases focussed more on demonstrating the future career benefit of a good quality research work, than on providing technical comments to draft papers.
Finally, there is a cultural problem common across many societies. Researchers too often get afraid of critical feedback. They love their draft texts so much and take critical comments personally. A good quality research output emerges out of drafting, critical reviews, revision, rewriting, and again rewriting. The value of peer review is underestimated. There is also a tendency to produce quantity of texts rather than quality. This quantity pressure is quite visible in formal academic career, as Universities in both the developing and the developed world put a lot emphasis on number rather than the quality of peer reviewed publications.
Overall, challenges in mentorship practice are linked to underlying personal, behavioural, institutional, and cultural contexts. Overcoming these challenges is paramount to effective mentoring and rewarding research and scientific writing experience.