22 May 2018

Thirty Stellenbosch academics, all keen to sharpen their popular science writing skills, participated in a workshop hosted at CREST on 22 May 2018. Two members of the editorial team at ‘The Conversation Africa’, Shallan Govender (copy chief) and Candice Bailey (health and medicine editor), presented the training.

“So much amazing research remains hidden in academic silos, but we want to change that”, Bailey said. “Our job is to take science news and expert opinion and put it in the public domain in a user-friendly way.”

‘The Conversation’ is a novel online platform that allows academics to showcase their work and to earn public recognition for their expertise. All content is published under a Creative Commons licence, meaning that media outlets may republish it with due credit to the author(s) and source. This novel media model was first launched in Australia in 2011, followed by editions in the UK and US. The Africa edition was launched in 2015, followed by country platforms for France, Canada and Indonesia. African offices are located in Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi.

Over the last three years, more than 2 000 authors (all academics) have written more than 3 000 articles for the Africa edition of this platform. The authors get expert help from the editorial team at ‘The Conversation’ to ensure their articles are reader-friendly and jargon-free. Articles are only published once the author(s) give the green light.

The Conversation Africa currently attracts about 350 000 readers per month. With about 90% of its content re-published in other media channels, the total reach is close to 1.8 million people per month. This kind of visibility helps academics to network with policy makers and may even spark research collaborations across institutions and countries.

‘The Conversation Africa’ operates as a donor-funded NGO. Core funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supplemented by funding from universities and other research organisations. Stellenbosch University became a funding partner recently and will contribute R200 000 annually.

Efforts to bring our research closer to society are close to our hearts, Dr Therina Theron, research director at Stellenbosch University, said at the start of the workshop. “Communicating science to the public may not be the mainstream activity of academics, but it is increasingly important to our funders and partners,” she explained. “People want to hear these stories about new advances in science and how it affects their lives.”