Project Description

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Online academic bullying

Written by: Candice Spence 27 May 2019 Researcher: Dr Travis Noakes, Emeritus Professor Tim Noakes, Associate Professor Izak van Zyl, Associate Professor Pat Harpur, Dr Cleo Protogerou

Institution: Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT)

Background and Aim:  

Online academic bullying is a serious problem that has yet be adequately defined. Our project seeks to prepare clear definitions for online academic bullying and mobbing that should prove useful for victims and policy makers who confront both phenomena: The activities of trolls and cyber-bullies have been well-defined for ideological, political, religious and non-ideological purposes. In contrast, the literature is silent about the deliberate targeting of academics who have taken unorthodox positions. This gap was identified with the experiences of Emeritus Professor Tim Noakes, who has had a lengthy exposure to targeting by academic bullies in traditional and new media after he changed his view in 2010 about what constitutes a healthy diet.

The first phase of the our project is to propose a clear definition for ‘online academic bullying’. In the second phase, we will do an in-depth social media data analysis that explores informal academic debates, illegitimate debates and severe harassment online on Twitter for key communication events of a scientific dispute. The data from this social media data analysis will also inform our explanation for how online academic mobbing is a distinct phenomenon versus traditional academic mobbing. In the third phase, we will explore the strategies of scholarly targets in response to online academic bullying and mobbing.

Online Academic Bullying (OAB) research project update: February, 2021

The OAB research project is now hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). The project now has a bigger team working on completing stage 1 and preparing for stage 2 (2022+).

In stage 1, the team is focused on answering these gaps in the research literature:

  • What is online academic bullying?
  • How did two Professors use Twitter for successfully promoting a controversial scientific editorial?
  • Can we differentiate between legitimate informal academic debate, illegitimate ones and cyber harassment on Twitter?

For question 1, we are excited to announce that the article Distinguishing online academic bullying: identifying new forms of harassment in a dissenting Emeritus Professor’s case has been published by the Heliyon journal under the Social Sciences category. We have also developed an OAB reporting tool (a Google form at that targets of academic cyberbullies can use for developing a report on their experiences of cyber harassment.

A new data analyst joined our team, who has imported thousands of tweets for a widely retweeted editorial ( plus linked publications. These tweets are being analysed in Atlas.ti for the new manuscript, Microblogging a controversial editorial: opportunities and challenges in promoting scientific dissent that answers question 2. Professor Tim Noakes’ publication The value (or otherwise) of Social Media to the Medical Professional: Some personal reflections was also recently accepted by Current Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Another major development is that Twitter has made its historical data free for researchers to access. In March, one of our researchers will be working with Younglings to import this episode’s data directly into Atlas.ti. In theory, this should offer benefits over the initial process we followed, such as making the lengthy Twitter exchanges less difficult to trace and follow. This should enable our analysis to tackle question 3, whilst  inspiring a new manuscript,  Flat packs versus live data: considerations for microblogging analysis using qualitative research software.

While The Noakes Foundation has applied for several grants for the OAB research project, just one to CPUT’s DHET fund proved successful. We trust that the strong publication record that our project should achieve by this year’s end will improve the chances of grant applications in 2022 for stage 2. We plan then explore these questions:

  • How do IRMCIH experts experience scientific suppression online?
  • How does OAB vary by country and between genders and LCHF roles? 

Should you wish to collaborate with our team or help sponsor research into academic cyberbullying and scientific suppression, kindly contact

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