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The missing link between the media and the graduate education in Ethiopia

The missing link between the media and the graduate education in Ethiopia, compounded by lack of publication and dissemination culture, drowns number of outstanding knowledge products of young and experienced researchers, only worth for shelves or shredding, writes Dawit Seyum.

Nate Silver, my favorite American statistician, pollster and writer, in his book “The signal and the noise: why so many predictions fail but some don’t” argues that the original revolution in information technology came not with the microchip, but with the printing press. According to Silver, books had existed prior to Johannes Gutenberg, but they were not widely written and they were not widely read. Instead, they were luxury items for the nobility, produced one copy at a time by scribes.

The going rates for reproducing a single manuscript was about one florin (a gold coin worth about USD 200 in today’s rate) per five pages. Take a breath here for few seconds! So a single copy production of my article in The Reporter newspaper (the one you are reading now) would cost about USD 500 (approximately 11,000 birr) prior to the 1440s. Producing a single copy of the overall current issue of The Reporter (which is both in hard and softcopy) would cost at least 35,000 birr in the 1440s. The price tag for books from book stores and street vendors in Addis Ababa for less than 100 Birr today, would have cost about 250,000 birr to produce a single copy. That was the real history!

This made the accumulation of knowledge extremely difficult. It required heroic efforts to prevent the volume of recorded knowledge from actually decreasing, since the books might decay faster than they could be reproduced. As a result, untold amounts of wisdom were lost to the ages, and there was little incentive to record more of it to the page. That is why I often express my appreciation to the historical legacy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for producing and preserving rare copies of ancient books.

Today, the number is enormous and we cannot estimate annual productions. As I write this article thousands of books are on the production line. Thanks to the printing machine, the number of books produced globally per year jumped from few thousands in 1440, to over13 million in the 1880s. Consequently, the digital era further revolutionized the information economy. Today you can have your own website, journal, or whatever for a few dollars—sometimes free of charge. I know several “Facebookers” who have dedicated pages to publish their talent, aspiration or about a cause they stand for. Based on the statistics from UNESCO, Worldometer indicated that this year alone, over 1,169,854 new book titles will be published [imagine this is new book title only not copies].

I do not think that we have to be a little bit of pundit to tell how much the world has changed today. We are excellent witnesses. Fortunately, we are in an era of unprecedented opportunity to generate and retain knowledge. It is unwise to take the current opportunity for granted. Meanwhile, I am certain that exposure to so many new ideas might be causing an enormous confusion. The amount of information we are provided through print media, TV and the internet is sometimes much more rapid than our understanding and coping ability. It is beyond our capacity to filter the useful from the nonsense. However, in my opinion, informed confusion is a much better alternative than ignorance. Ignoring something is not the best solution to a problem— it is probably the worst path to follow.

In terms of academic oriented publications, thanks to the information technology revolution, we are in an era of enormous knowledge generation and dissemination. A publication by International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers in 2012 found that there were about 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed journals in mid-2012, collectively publishing about 1.8–1.9 million articles a year. This is equivalent to publishing between 5,000 to 5,280 publications per day. The number of articles published each year and the number of journals have both grown steadily. Unfortunately, in the absence of centralized repository, archiving and tracking systems, estimating the volume for Ethiopia would be a daunting task.

Scholarly communication encompasses a number of traditional platforms as well as evolving outlets. Some of these platforms include writing books, journal publications, conference presentations, both formal and informal seminar discussions, face-to-face or telephone conversations, email exchanges, preprints, grey literature, news media coverage, interview with media outlets and perhaps social media. Research production and dissemination is not just an academic pursuit. It is all about the development of nations. Numerous evidences indicate that there is a positive association between level of economic development and research outputs. Globally, 21 percent of the research outputs come from the United States. China’s fast economic growth was also associated with the most dramatic growth in publications, leading to 10 percent of the global output. It is followed by the United Kingdom (seven percent), Japan (six percent), Germany (six percent) and France (four percent). However, scholarly articles generated from the US are most cited and highly reputable. Generally, about 30 percent of the global citations are from US-based research outputs compared to only four percent from China. Therefore, it should be clearly noted that research and development of a country have some form of association—both reinforcing each other. I think the latest move by the government of Ethiopia and universities to expand their research capacity and establishing think-thanks would pay sooner than later [I hope!].

These achievements in research and dissemination did not evolve by sheer chance. Governments, private companies, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations and individuals purposefully invested in research generation, dissemination, marketing and communication. One strategic way, consistently implemented throughout generations in the US is developing a culture of evidence generation, dissemination and communication. Education in the West, especially in the US, not only encourages production and dissemination of information, but also systematically integrates access to unlimited volumes of new publications to students, through either by journal subscription or through the media. Thus, the academic frontier is linked to evidences through hardcore scientific journals as well as media briefs. On the other hand, the media promotes academic and research practices for public consumption. 

In Ethiopia, a number of print and other media routinely—sometimes on ad hoc basis—report about latest developments, policies and practices in various sectors. In this regard, at list in my field of practice, news about health, healthy lifestyle, public health and medical breakthrough or evolving practices are less reported. For others there are dedicated columns on social, economic, political and business issues. This makes newspapers the most inclusive media outlets. Academic publications are often exclusive, jargon dominated, circulated in closed doors through membership and exorbitant membership fees, full of abstracts and statistics, and targeting the ‘academic club.’ Thus, the only means to make academic publications user friendly, accessible to the public, understandable to non-science addict community is through a well-thought newspaper article. 

Publication is not enough—the content and materials should be promoted and marketed. People usually opt to read the headlines, vacancies, tenders and few areas of interest and skip some parts. Unfortunately, I am not sure how much these columns attract public (including what I am writing now), however, counting the number of ‘online hits/number of times the article is viewed’ on online newspapers clearly shows a weak trend. Without having an audience tracking survey determining the utilization of the information would be a cumbersome, yet availing the information is one step ahead.

In Ethiopia, majority of the public universities ensure access to newspapers and other magazines in their libraries—though the state-owned Addis Zemen, Ethiopian Herald and the ruling party affiliated newspapers are the most common. In my times, I correctly remember that Addis Ababa University used to have a dedicated corner for periodicals, where all the local newspapers were placed (I hope it must have expanded by know – I hope!). Moreover, despite the irritant internet connectivity, some of the newspapers have online versions that can be accessed freely. In the US nearly every news outlet, print, online or any form of media has dedicated sections for health news as well as science editors associated to specific fields of study. Majority of the news article are either free or fee based, yet still affordable. All the major newspapers such as USA TodayThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post publish health news and research findings in a user friendly and appealing format. These columns have a large volume of readers, thanks to the media-academic collaborations.      

There might be a little bit skepticism about the rigor of articles in newspapers. However, the good news is that reading patterns are changing. Today researchers are reading more articles than ever before (about 270 articles per year), but spending less time per article, with reported reading times down from 45-50 minutes in the mid-1990s to about over 30 minutes now. Accordingly, anyone who has access to a research syndicate or synopsis in newspaper will be lucky enough at least to read the gist of the evidence produced.  

The top universities and colleges in the US promote a transdisciplinary approach to academics and problem solving. Accordingly, they prepare students to integrate and apply knowledge gained from their education to better understand and address emerging challenges in their fields of practice. Students are expected to synthesize theories and methods from the coursework and develop a robust, comprehensive and practically sensible understanding of complex problems. Getting the theoretical knowledge and understanding the complex problems is not considered to be adequate. Students should communicate effectively with peers, faculty, community, the media, policymakers and all relevant stakeholders about historical, contemporary and emerging issues in their fields of practice. One way of gauging the learning process is a deliberate linkage of the media piece in academic processes. The common ones include open seminars, speaker’s series, news review and synthesis, weekly news presentation in the class, writing and dissemination of advocacy and policy briefs.

Time spent in graduate school is so precious. Fulltime study in the US is absolutely “round-the-clock” investment. Missing a day or procrastinating will lead to stressful catch up endeavors. For any additional task that requires substantial time investment it is always about tradeoff, which includes reducing leisure and sleep time. A number students work part-time jobs to subsidize some of the living cost; as well as minimize their debt burden. Still, they have to accept some form of tradeoff. Thankfully, the working culture and smooth transportation across the cities substantially helps them to handle multiple tasks at a time. Thus, most students read newspapers in trains and buses while travelling. Hence, for the additional work done—including news article synthesis—the US educational system either provides a credit hour, few points or some form of incentive that is integral to students’ performance evaluation. For example, students enrolled to study a course in Epidemiology conduct a weekly summary and synthesis of the Epi-in the news. In this brief summary, students will inform the class about the latest issue, research or development by framing and linking it with either a theory or content learnt in the class. This is possible nearly for all science and social science fields that involve research and development. It is possible to do physics in the news, economics in the news, politics in the news, policy in the news, and so forth. 

Mandatory weekly seminars usually combine material from across the curriculum to enable comprehensive understanding and critical analyses of real world issues, past and present. In most cases seminars cover classical issues, which involve foundational ideas and principles of the field and contemporary or emerging public issues. Scopes range from local to global issues of interest. Prior to attending, students will be provided with the topic and source materials such as news reports, surveillance data, and documentaries, among others and will write a comprehensive but brief critical analysis report. Thus, seminars get media coverage.

While I was in Ethiopian universities, and in my six years of stay, I have never seen a guest lecturer in my class. I was never asked to read newspapers and critically analyze my class-based learning in relation to what is going around—for instance in the media. Of course, I do not remember newspapers being suggested as reading materials in our course outlines at all (I might be wrong!).

Followed by a publication or news media coverage of a breakthrough or an important finding, US universities invest on access to information from the ‘horse’s mouth’. The system encourages guest lecturers and meetings/conferences/seminars/ series speakers, from leading expert practitioners, researchers and scientists. It is common to attend lectures from federal administrators to cutting edge Nobel Laureate researchers. Such partnerships are win-win initiatives. Universities will ensure access to the latest cutting edge knowledge and practice to their students; and speakers will be appreciated or formally recognized for those efforts. It becomes part of their career development. Academics is not only about being bookish (as my brother is advised by his professor). It is partly about speaking out the knowledge, experience, expertise and opinions for the general public, beyond the school compound. The presence of such speakers, again garners attention from the media, increasing the publicity and visibility of higher learning institutions, their students and their capacity.

Some readers may challenge me arguing that there is limited academic space in Ethiopia. To be honest, the academic context I am basing my argument is a free and open environment, which might be incomparable. However, I still argue that the though the doors may not be wide open, I do not think that they are completely closed too. I hope that the government’s approval of media outlets promoting celebrities will be extended to academic knowledge dissemination.

Furthermore, developing and disseminating evidence-based policy and advocacy briefs are often an integral part of several fields of study. Students are expected to deliver a number of policy and advocacy briefs. The media often takes some of the pertinent briefs and publishes them in a polished format. Accordingly, the voices of students about themselves, the community they serve or the issue they stand for/against will easily reach the ears and eyes of policymakers at various levels. This further widens the scope and definition of public participation from practice-based community activities such as cleaning streets, volunteering in a nursery to broader media-based initiatives. For some of the universities in Ethiopia, it is really easy to build this culture as they already have strong community-based training programs, which can be used as a springboard.    

On the other hand, in a country where opportunities for publication are extremely limited, the media would be an alternative outlet to disseminate research findings. In Ethiopia, after the degree is awarded, the thesis, dissertation and in-semester assignment materials are shelved or shredded without reaching any audience. Accordingly, all the efforts end up wasted. The worst academic crime/mistake is not publishing a read-to-be-published work, which opens doors for plagiarism. If our research has no translational value to our community, our people, our country, and the scientific community, how worth is investing such a massive time, money and energy?

Academia and media collaboration is a win-win partnership. The media will benefit from substantive inputs and contents to meet the expectation of the audience. In the meantime, the academic community will earn an up-to-date information and an outlet for information dissemination. Such partnerships definitely provide opportunities for intensive interaction and problem-solving within the university community and the general public.

Ed.’s Note: Dawit Seyum (BA, MA, LDP, and MPH) is based at Washington University in Saint Louis. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter and the institutions he is affiliated with. He can be reached at [email protected].

 

Contributed by Dawit Seyum
Contributed by Dawit Seyum