Thursday 25 February 2021

Some background for 'Distinguishing online academic bullying: identifying new forms of harassment in a dissenting Emeritus Professor’s case'

Written for academics and researchers interested in academic cyberbullies, peer victimisation, scientific suppression and intellectual harassment.

The Heliyon journal has published Distinguishing online academic bullying: identifying new forms of harassment in a dissenting Emeritus Professor’s case. It is an open-access article that's freely available from

Adjunct Professor Tim Noakes and I wrote it to foreground how the shift of academic discourse to online spaces without guardians presents cyberbullies from Higher Education (HE) with a novel opportunity to harass their peers and other vulnerable recipients. We argue that cyberbullying from HE employees is a neglected phenomenon, despite the dangers it can pose to academic free speech, as well as other negative outcomes.
Ringleader of the tormentors graphic by Create With
Background to the Online Academic Bullying (OAB) research project
The inspiration for researching OAB as a distinctive phenomenon arose during the lead author’s presentation to a research group in November, 2018. In this talk, I presented on designing new emojis as conversation stoppers for combating trolling (SAME, 2018). The attendees' questions in response suggested the necessity of researching how cyber harassment plays out in academic disputes on social media platforms.

My original PostDoc research proposal aimed to research emoji design projects in Africa, whilst also  working on the creative direction for Shushmoji™ emoji sticker sets (for example, Stop, academic bully! at This particular set was inspired by the cyber harassment of  insulin resistance model of chronic ill-health (IRMCIH) experts on Twitter by defenders of the dominant “cholesterol” model of chronic disease development (CMCDD).

As I began my PostDoc, a review of the academic cyberbullying literature produced a surprising result. There seemed to be very little conceptual or empirical research concerning academic employees who harass scholars online. In response to a neglected negative phenomenon that would seem highly important to study, my PostDoc's focus shifted to initiating the Online Academic Bullying (OAB) research project.

Nitpicker_who_does_not_add_to_the_debate graphic from Create With
Professor Noakes and I then setup the new research theme, Academic free speech and digital voices, under The Noakes Foundation. Under this theme, the OAB research project’s first stage (2018-2021) has focused on proposing a theoretically grounded conceptualisation for a recipient's experiences of OAB. We wrote 'Distinguishing online academic bullying' over a two year period in which the theoretical lens was refined to better address OAB's distinguishing characteristics. Our manuscript underwent four major rewrites and three revisions to accommodate diverse reviewers' plus an editor's constructive criticism.

Academic free speech and digital voices
Many studies in the field of scientific communication have focused on the dissemination of medical disinformation. By contrast, very few seem to explore the legitimate use of digital voice by scientific experts and health professionals who must work around scientific suppression in HE. In the Health Sciences scientific suppression and intellectual harassment is particularly dangerous where it: 
  1. entrenches an outdated and incorrect scientific model; 
  2. suppresses scholarly debate over rival models; 
  3. continues to support poor advice and interventions that result in sub-par outcomes versus proven and relatively inexpensive alternatives. 

It would seem unethical to suppress the testing of scientific models and development of academic knowledge that may greatly benefit public health. Nevertheless, this continues to occur in HE regarding the academic free speech of IRMCIH scholars. Although there is growing evidence for their model and the efficacy of its interventions, the rival blood lipid hypothesis and CMCCD model for the causation of heart disease largely remains the only one taught and researched by medical schools. There are few examples of legitimate debates between IRMCIH and CMCDD scholars in HE (Lustig, 2013; Taubes, 2007; 2011; 2017; 2020; Teicholz, 2014). Opportunities for IRMCIH research and teaching in HE are heavily constrained by scientific suppression of CMCDD dissenters (Noakes and Sboros, 2017, 2019).

In HE, scientific suppression can be understood as a normative category of impedance that is unfair, unjust and counter to the standards of academic behaviour (Delborne, 2016). Such impedance is apparent in the treatment of dissenting scholars who challenge the CMCDD model, then become ostracised from the Health Sciences as "heretics". In theory, universities should encourage academic free speech and robust debate on the CMCDD versus IRMCIH models. By contrast, in HE practice, IRMCIH scholars cannot exercise their rights to academic free speech.

Academic freedom is a special right of academics- a right to freedom from prescribed orthodoxy in their teaching, research, and lives as academics (Turk, 2014). This right seeks to avoid corruption from the vested interests of other parties, which ranges from scholarly peers and university board members to corporate donors. This right is foundational in supporting scholars to advance and expand knowledge, for example by accommodating diverse voices (Saloojee, 2013).

Academic free speech is a failed ideal where IRMCIH scholars do not enjoy opportunities to research and teach this emergent paradigm. Instead, dissenting IRMCHI scientists must negotiate scientific suppression by a multitude of entrenched networks and embedded academics. These have varied stakes in the medical establishment's highly profitable “cholesterol” model and its costly, but largely ineffective, interventions. This orthodox regime heavily constrains the IRMCIH model's development, whilst applying double-standards for evidence and proof. These demands typically ignore the sociological context of scientific knowledge. It flags key constraints, including:
  1. The relatively minuscule funding for IRMCIH studies 
  2. Many unethical ”ethical" or pseudo-skeptic "scientific" arguments used for delaying IR research projects
  3. Long-standing anti-IRMCIH, pro- CMCDD scholarly citation rings
  4. Academic mobs that defame IR scholars and create a chilling effect for their colleagues
  5. Likewise, pseudoskeptic academics, politicians and "science" journalists may unwittingly serve as agents of industry by diverting public attention from Fiat science™ and consensus silence to IRMCIH “failures”.

Online academic bullying as an emergent extension of scientific censorship 
Mob dogpiler graphic from Create With

A contemporary form of censorship exists that denies attention and stifles opportunities for turning scholarship and innovation into better options for public policy (Tufekci, 2017). For IRMCIH experts, cyber harassment has emerged as a 21st century form of attention-denial that CMCDD's defenders leverage. They apply a range of strategies to stifle dissident scientists' and health experts' outreach to online audiences and affinity networks. As this 21st century censorship matrix illustrates, cyber harassment is just one of many visible and direct strategies that powerful networks have used to censor dissenting IRMCIH scholars in HE.

With a wide range of vitriolic critics within and outside academia, we focused on the case of an Emeritus Professor as a convenience sample. He had first-hand exposure to OAB for almost a decade across varied social media platforms. In 'Distinguishing online academic bullying', OAB is clearly differentiated from the traditional forms of bullying (eg. academic mobbing) that he had to negotiate after taking the unorthodox, but scientific, position for IRMCIH. Major aspects are shown in the article's abstract graphic, below- academic cyberbullies strategies in OAB may range from misrepresenting an employer's position as "official" to hypercritical academic bloggers whose chains of re-publication become sourced for defamatory online profiles.

Distinguishing online academic bullying abstract graphic

There were also many minor forms that we may cover in a future article. For example, scholars' could signal ostracism in small ways, such as removing the Emeritus Professor as a co-contributor on their Google Scholar profiles.

Reporting on cyber-victimisation with routine activity theory
While writing our article, we also developed a reporting instrument for OAB recipients. Targets of academic cyberbullies can use a Google form at to develop reports on their experiences of cyber harassment. They can share it with decision- and policy-makers at the institutions they are targeted from, as well as our OAB research project. This reporting instrument is based on Routine Activity Theory (RAT) and is being refined with IRMCIH and other experts' feedback. 

The problem of cyber harassment is not easy to fix, since it requires individual, systemic and collective action (Hodson, Gosse, Veletsianos, & Houlden, 2018). We hope that spotlighting OAB’s distinctive attacks will raise awareness amongst researchers and institutional policy makers. We argue that it is important for HE employers and related professional organisations to consider strategies that can guard against academic cyberbullies and their negative impacts.

Academic myopia graphic from Create With

Stop, academic bully! shushmoji™ graphics courtesy of Create With, Cape Town.

The authors would like to thank the funders, software developers, researchers and Heliyon's reviewers who have made the best version of this article possible: 

The Noakes Foundation’s project team of Jayne Bullen, Jana Venter, Alethea Dzerefos Naidoo and Sisipho Goniwe have contributed to expanding the scope of the researchers’ OAB project. The software development contributions of Yugendra ‘Darryl’ Naidoo, Cheryl Mitchell and the support of Alwyn van Wyk (Younglings) and the developers Tia Demas, Ruan Erasmus, Paul Geddes, Sonwabile Langa and Zander Swanepoel have enabled the researchers to gain the broadest view of Twitter’s historical data. The feedback from the South African Multimodality in Education research group after the authors’ shared the Emeritus Professor’s case indirectly suggested the topic of this article. Mark Phillips and Dr Cleo Protogerou’s feedback on the ensuing manuscripts proved invaluable in guiding it into a tightly-focused research contribution. We would also like to thank CPUT’s Design Research Activities Workgroup (DRAW) for its feedback on a progress presentation, especially Professor Alettia Chisin, Dr Daniela Gachago and Associate Professor Izak van Zyl. He and Adjunct Professor Patricia Harpur provided valuable guidance that helped shape the OAB reporting tool into a productive research instrument.

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