Publication Mentorship Program for First-Time Women Authors in the Field of HPSR: An interview with Linet Okoth and Sally Theobald

We sat down to speak with Linet Okoth and Sally Theobald who are both members of the ARISE consortium, about their experience taking part in the Publication Mentorship Program for First-Time Women Authors in the Field of HPSR. The program is collaboration between Health Systems Global (HSG), the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research (the Alliance) and Health Policy and Planning (HPP). They invite applications from early-career women based in low- and middle-income countries  (LMICs) working on HPSR issues, who are interested in publishing their HPSR research for the first time in a global peer-reviewed journal, but require guidance and support to submit a manuscript which has the potential to be published. Linet Okoth works at LVCT Health in Kenya and was a mentee as part of the 2022/23 cohort of the Publication Mentorship Programme. She is a Senior Technical Advisor for Community Health, and is interested in health systems strengthening, specifically in community settings. ally Theobald is a Professor in Social Science and International Health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK, and was a mentor for the 2022/23 cohort of the Publication Mentorship Programme. Sally works on a number of different research projects, including ARISE.

What are the main points you think people should know about the mentorship process?

Linet: The programme is really rigorous. It requires a lot of commitment. You need to identify a policy issue to centre your manuscript around. It really helps if you have a mentor who understands your context, and who can guide you in coming up with a good topic and paper.

Sally: I’d really encourage people to apply. I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to go on a journey together with your mentor. How the scheme works is that mentors and mentees are matched based on interests and expertise and focus of the abstract in the early stages, and then you go on a journey together. In the beginning we’re agreeing key messages, making sure there’s internal coherence, and that it all hangs together. We also work with co-authors, bringing them with us.

It’s about being part of a broader family or cohort. I enjoyed building my relationship with Linet, but also having the opportunity to meet the other mentees and mentors. I think it was really positive that many of us were able to come together face to face in Bogota [at the Health Systems Research 2022 conference], to build relationships with each other, share experiences and learn new things. We had sessions that really made me think – like how do you draw people in and express the message of your paper? I think it’s great that that the program is also inspiring and teaching mentors as well.

Linet: The in-person gathering was an opportunity to meet other mentors, and the rest of the cohort, and get an idea of what they’re doing. Just having that sharing in one physical meeting was a good thing.

 How did the mentorship process in help you to prepare for and publish your research?

Linet: The mentorship process has prepared me to get going with writing. The ARISE consortium is in its final year. I am part of the implementation team and a lot has happened on the ground, so you can be sure there’s so much to write. I have gained so much confidence, working with my colleagues to come up with the abstract, looking at the policy documents. I’ve done program work for quite a time, but I needed the courage to write something. This process has given me that courage, and I’m looking forward to doing even more papers with the team. Either the first draft or as a co-author on other papers, especially for ARISE. It really helps to have someone to go on that journey with you the first time.

Tell us a little more about your paper, and what motivated you to write on this topic?

Linet: The title of my paper is ‘Delivery of health services to pregnant adolescents in informal urban settlements in Kenya’ and I’m looking at perspectives of policy versus practice. In the implementation of ARISE, we’ve interacted with vulnerable populations, and one of those populations was child headed households. In the context of child headed households, you realise that many more girls are in this position than boys.

Also, I have an interest in maternal and child health, and most of the people who fall in this group are young girls who are accessing services in the health facilities. We noticed that even though we believe there are free maternal and child health services, there are challenges with young girls accessing these services because they cannot afford to, or the services are of poor quality, or they have challenges with laws and policies in the country.

So, if this girl is an adolescent and is pregnant, number one they are vulnerable because they are a child, number two they are vulnerable because they are pregnant. This made me ask ‘can I do something?’ Because we have free maternal health services in Kenya. but we still have girls not accessing services. For me it was important to find out why there was this gap? What is the issue causing them to not access the services, despite having all these things put in place for us as a country? So that’s what motivated me, and that’s what I wanted to find out. There is so much that I have gathered which speaks to the reasons why the girls are not accessing services.

How did you work together to refine this idea?

Sally: We went through different stages and phases, in terms of the focus, the messaging, the narrowing down. And what was also good for me about the process was having the journal very much on board. You have to focus the paper against the requirements and the interests of the journal.

In all of our discussions, we also talked about how youth and gender friendly services that are there in policy can evaporate in practice, if there’s not enough investment in the services and the critical health workers be able to really build gender and youth friendly services, and to build trust with people that have multiple challenges in accessing care. They may feel alienated by formal health services. Through our discussions, we looked at how we fit this within the policy literature and within the broader academic literature? How do you build on the results to tell a story, situated in the literature, as well as within the context of urban informal settlements in Nairobi, and tells a coherent narrative that resonates within Nairobi and in settlements beyond Nairobi, as well.

Linet, can you tell us a little bit about the skills that you’ve learnt through the mentorship relationship and up to this stage of the publishing process?

Linet: I think one of the skills is patience! Also, working with different co-authors, having people with different perspectives on how you want to present this information, how people think differently around your topic, and what they want to focus on. It takes patience to collate all these thoughts and opinions, bring them together into something that makes sense, and as the lead author translate this into something that is coherent.

Secondly, I really improved my literature reading skills – you need to do a lot of reading, summarising, referencing. There are lots of suggestions around papers to be read, and you need to read them all, understand them, summarise them, and be able to refer back to them. Reading for me used to be a setback, but I think now it’s a skill that I have embraced, and I’m looking forward to using in the future.

There’s a lot of information, and condensing all that information is a skill. I can write and write and write, but this was a time to think about exactly what I wanted to say, to summarise, and be succinct.

Those are key skills that I learned through the program. And I think it’s something that I am taking forward as I continue with my career in research.

Beyond the skills learned through the mentorship and publishing process, what are some of the other advantages of being part of this cohort?

Linet: Through the programme I have had exposure to people who I wouldn’t have otherwise. For me it’s about the people – technical people, who can guide me in my writing. That’s another thing that that I needed to embrace research. My background has meant working on a lot of programs and with program managers. Through this project I’ve got to know and interact with some editors, researchers and academics. That exposure for me was a very good thing. It was great to have the physical session in Bogota that brought us all together, sharing, and getting quick, in person feedback on our work.

Also, the financial support offered to allow me to travel to HSR 2022 was really important, because without it I would have had to join the session virtually which wouldn’t have been as useful. It was so good that the program facilitated our travel to Bogota, and allowed us to interact with mentors and mentees on the program in person.

Any final thoughts on the programme and the experience?

Sally: It’s really wonderful to hear Linet reflect on the courage to write, on the power of reading, on the learning, on the journey, and also feeling inspired to be able to write further papers as first author or co-author. Obviously in ARISE we’ve got less than a year left, and I would love to see all of us really pushing on the outputs of all forms, including papers!

I really want to encourage others to apply for the program. It is really hard to write those first papers, and to go though it with a mentor, but also a wider cohort and a network to support each other is a really positive process. And I learnt a lot through it as well, so this a learning and network building opportunity for mentors as well as mentees! And I think it’s a great strategic partnership between the Alliance, Health Systems Global and the journal, really coming together in that way to support authors, and helps them with that early experience.

Linet: For me the experience has been so good. It’s exposes early career researchers to writing. Once they put the call out for the next cohort, I will encourage everyone to apply. It’s just a good experience for people who want to do research, people who want to write but are struggling. Because working alongside your mentor makes the burden lighter. There were times when I struggled and panicked in the process, but someone who helps you walk this journey is so helpful.

It’s been a good experience, and good exposure. I would encourage anyone who is eligible to apply for it to go for it!

If you want to learn more about the Publication Mentorship Program you can read more on the HSR website, listen to this podcast about the experiences of some previous participants , and check out the 2020 supplement on the Alliance website.