Science writing is a skill that takes a lot of practice to hone. So why not start early? The faculty of Sophia College (Autonomous), Mumbai, decided to give their undergraduate and masters’ students the full experience of writing and publishing an article, by starting their very own scientific journal. Here’s an article about their journey, in their own words.
Many science students may be budding writers and future scientists but often do not have a suitable platform to showcase their talent at the undergraduate (and perhaps even Masters) level. Yet others may be so used to technology-driven concise language constructs (SMS and texting short terminologies) that language skills would need to be honed. With this in mind, we, the faculty of Sophia College, Mumbai, felt the need for our very own science journal. SCRIBE — Science Chronicles in Research and Investigation Based Education — our annual inter-disciplinary in-house science journal was born. SCRIBE was inaugurated by our Principal in a formal ceremony attended by staff and students on National Science Day, February 28, 2020. Here, we share our journey from conceiving the idea to the publication of the first issue. The journey involved many periods of ups and downs, but it was all eventually worth it as we believe that it was a stepping stone in promoting science writing amongst students.
The idea of starting a science journal in the College was seeded by Medha Rajadhyaksha, the then Vice-Principal (Science), in 2016, and the initial plan was to publish the first issue as part of the College’s Platinum Jubilee celebration. Although the attempt was on to coax the students out of their inertia, not much moved. The idea was revived by Yasmin Khan (current Vice Principal — Science) in 2019.
We met in the staff canteen one lazy Saturday afternoon in November 2019 and pledged to bring the journal to life. We decided that our mandate was to keep the journal ‘in-house’ and student-oriented to foster science writing in our students. We knew this adventure would have its share of uncertainties, and though it would be an uphill task to review and make it publication-ready by the semester end, we were sure about one thing – plagiarism was totally unacceptable. We began on a high note with brain-storming sessions, formulating an editorial committee with both staff and enthusiastic students, and putting up flyers consisting of instructions for authors on all possible notice boards. We convened a meeting to teach students about different types of articles and encouraged them to write. After this came the waiting period (to receive articles), and what a long period that was!
The first deadline was a complete disappointment with only a few articles in our inbox. At this point, we could still not see light at the end of the tunnel. This was not an assignment that we could dangle marks as an incentive, and over that, the exams were approaching, fast. We appealed to students again to write (some of us would even catch students in corridors and nag them to write). We then received some excellent contributions from our Masters’ students from various science departments. This encouraged undergraduate students to follow suit. The second deadline was a happier time with our inbox filled with articles. But now a new challenge was awaiting us – editing.
We were fortunate to have three brilliant Masters students – Avni Rao, Binita Vedak, and Saunri Dhodi Lobo as part of the core editorial team who took on the work in all earnestness (they later received certificates for their hard work and dedication). We scrutinized all the articles for plagiarism, grammar, the accuracy of scientific content, and of course, references (which, as one can imagine for first-time writers, were all over the place). Authors were returned their articles with suggestions to revise and re-submit for publication with new deadlines. We were thrilled to see revised write-ups from all categories of articles. Finally, on February 28, 2020, we published the first issue.
It was worth all the effort. There were categories such as “research articles”, under which students reported their research data; “review articles”, through which students would put forth their understanding of topics selected by them; “trends in science”, elucidating a few recent research avenues; “Nobel prize 2019”, discussing the story of people behind the award; “from Indian labs” giving a flavour of a few prominent laboratories in India; “history of science”, to give a historical perspective to discoveries; “ecological concerns”, to address sustainable development; mini-reviews; book reviews; editorials “from the student’s desk”; crossword puzzles; biodiversity pictures, etc. The cherry on the cake was an ‘Invited Article’ by a senior eminent scientist and alumnus of our College.
It is important to remember that not everyone is a born writer – writing is an acquired form of learning. Additionally, the process of writing inculcates in the authors the art of searching for relevant content, organizing, summarizing, and articulating thoughts and ideas with a certain flow and creativity. It also enables critical and higher-order thinking. Hence, although our newly founded journal does not yet stand on par with well-established and renowned journals, it is a step towards promoting this art of science communication. This is why our college also conducts a certificate course on ‘scientific writing’ for first-year undergraduate students.
In our opinion, the editorial team of our journal was ideal, consisting of an assortment of faculty and students. The faculty editors oversaw the editorial process and ensured quality, while the student editors not only gained experience in the editorial process but also encouraged other students to be potential authors. It must be emphasized that the interdisciplinary nature of the journal facilitated students to read and appreciate topics from all sciences. In all, we felt that the endeavour was a success from the students’ point of view, even though on the faculty’s part, it involved a lot of time and effort between the teaching schedules.
Looking back, we realize that there is room for improvement. So, for the next issue, we are striving to put into place the process of ‘peer-reviewing’. Also, every article will have a faculty author associated with the student author; a step that will foster a mentor-mentee bond, and ensure the quality of the article prior to submission.
Overall, an in-house journal is not only a platform, but also an opportunity to hone students’ writing skills at an early stage, which goes a long way in their ability to articulate ideas, making them aware of the publishing process, and indeed boosting their confidence. Along with the joy of knowledge dissemination, we hope that this journal may be a stepping stone for students to adopt a scientific temper.
As undergraduate research is being encouraged in our country, this kind of platform gives students the encouragement to steer their research work towards successful completion. While it lifts the pressure on undergraduate students to publish in renowned journals, it gives them a glimpse of what lies ahead. This may even open up new possibilities for those who had not tapped into their interests in writing. Whether they make a career in research or science journalism/editing, or even if they choose a completely different career path, they would be well-versed in the nuances involved in science writing and also publishing.