On #PeerRevWk16: An Entirely Cynical Perspective

N. C. Hall  /  12/10/2016

#PeerRevWk16 is an annual effort by academic publishers to bolster flagging peer review participation, quality, and speed through explicit statements of thanks and recognition.

Although this initiative could be viewed as a face-valid effort by a public service industry charged by governments and post-secondary institutions with the sacred, inestimable responsibility of research dissemination, there are major ongoing issues underlying academics’ reluctance concerning peer reviews that this initiative does not discuss. From huge publisher profits afforded by gouging public institutions and not meaningfully compensating academics to unjustifiably high open access fees and peer review patents to stifle competition, there are serious systemic problems underlying the peer review process that this hashtag effort does little to address.

Basically, I started to feel uncomfortable seeing publishers attempt to dominate a hashtag ostensibly “for” academics with tweets containing marketing-department infographics on what academics want, promoting a new reviewer ratings system, or sharing “how-to” guides to cost-effectively improve the quality/speed of free academic labour. In response, it seemed important to balance this profitable status quo narrative by highlighting the uncomfortable realities of the peer review process for academics. I am by no means an expert on higher education policy/ethics/economics, I just wanted to share information and balance the discussion about how to promote research quality by better supporting those who do it.

It all started a few weeks ago when I first noticed tweets from academic publishers pop up in my timeline underscoring the importance and novelty of thanking peer reviewers as well as quantifying/ranking peer review efforts:

In typical fashion, I responded with flippant sarcastic commentary, thinking it to be an obviously transparent (and hopefully temporary) publisher effort to pacify volunteer reviewers with a pat on the back and self-relevant data:

But this weird gratitude parade only seemed to ramping up and it got me thinking more seriously about the motivation behind these reviewer appreciation efforts:

As a good academic, I supplemented these devastating hot takes with references to external sources outlining the growing dissent concerning the publication process:

With such an eviscerating response to this uncomfortable wave of public publisher affection, I thought my job was done. However, I soon realized there was an actual hashtag for this initiative – #PeerRevWk16 – and an entire week to come of publisher efforts to spam Twitter with pre-scheduled, strategic gratitude PR aimed at thanking academics by educating them as to their peer review value and responsibilities.

Some #PeerRevWk16 publisher tweets hoped to inform researchers of the importance of peer reviews as the cornerstone of scientific inquiry, as if they were somehow not addressing individuals who by definition should be not only intimately familiar with the scientific process but have based their research careers largely on this premise:

Other tweets expressed heartfelt thanks to reviewers for their time and effort through mass cut-and-paste “publishers are people too” gestures garnering remarkably few RTs or replies:

Publisher spam also included regularly scheduled marketing-office infographic blasts educating academics about why they do (read “should do”) peer reviews, with most results ironically showing academics to have already decided on better ways to spend their time:

And then there were the tweets consistently promoting the new reviewer recognition system “Publons”; a publisher-owned effort to bolster peer reviewer commitment by tracking, quantifying, and ranking peer reviewers:

But perhaps the most condescending #PeerRevWk16 tweets were those gently informing academics as to how they could better perform their free publisher labour:

So I admittedly got a bit snarky:

And being on sabbatical, words were soon diverted from manuscript revisions to countering this increasingly awkward, oblivious, and patronizing publisher narrative implying that problematic peer review disengagement could be remedied not by meaningful compensation or real talk about peer review costs, but by a Twitter campaign aimed at educating, flattering, and shaming academics. Again, I’m not an expert on the academic publishing industry, but it seemed important to share some thoughts on issues that were clearly being avoided such as:

1.  The peer review burden on vulnerable academics:

2.  The ethics of peer review compensation:

3.  In-store credit as review compensation:

4.  Financial compensation for peer reviews:

5.  The exclusion of industry expertise:

6.  Peer review sampling bias:

7.  The “gamification” of peer review:

8.  My personal review perspective:

9.  Public perception of publisher appreciation efforts:

So while the #PeerRevWk16 initiative does on the surface present as an effort to simply thank and support peer reviewers, a quick consideration of the academic publishing landscape suggests that it may also represent an effort to whitewash growing public discontent over a massively profitable industry that does shamefully little to show respect for the free academic labour on which it relies:

So for good measure, I doubled down with @AcademicsSay to better punctuate the #PeerRevWk16 publisher noise:

Even Nature got in on the fun:

And despite publisher-provided highlight reels of #PeerRevWk16 in which most of the above is effectively excluded, the narrative that resonated most with academics was obvious:

As to where to go from here, there were a few thoughts:

Maybe it’s just me, but this hashtag effort at best seems intended to distract from publisher problems or promote new publisher products. At worst, it seems a fundamentally misguided attempt to sustain profits by increasing peer review engagement among (a) inexperienced, less expert academics not yet familiar with the scientific process, (b) early career researchers trying any way they can to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their time and energy to potential employers, or (c) already overburdened academics disillusioned with the publication process who need and will take the self-esteem boost despite its patronizing tone.

Is a thank you from publishers for peer reviewing appreciated? Perhaps, but that’s not why we do it. And as a transparent attempt to placate a base increasingly dissatisfied with publishers profiting from their good will, institutional/disciplinary pressure, and passion for science, the #PeerRevWk16 effort kinda looks like using the “tip” section of a bill to provide actual tips on how to serve publishers better:

Of course, I might be entirely off-base in interpreting #PeerRevWk16 as anything other than a face-valid attempt to show some much-needed appreciation to hardworking volunteers. But as a leading authority on pandering to academics on Twitter, I can safely say that academic publisher trolling could use some work.


Unpacking @AcademicsSay: Part 1

N. C. Hall  /  06/05/2016

This is my first blog post.

And the only reason you’re seeing it is @AcademicsSay, ostensibly one of the most influential academic social media accounts reaching upwards of 24 million views a month across platforms.

Although polite company warrants eyes-down, humblebrag explanations of the success of this social experiment as serendipitous, that’s not entirely accurate. Instead, the account growth has been markedly consistent, largely anticipated, and intentionally facilitated by strategies common to influential accounts.

To the extent the following may read as a self-indulgent, overthinking, faux-Machiavellian hyper-justification of writing procrastination, I apologize in advance. Below is Part 1 of a tl;dr overview of the varied growth hacking strategies derived mainly from observation, basic psychology, and trial-and-error that may or may not have contributed to the success of @AcademicsSay.

1.   Opportunity. When I set up my professional Twitter account in May 2013, there was no common gathering point for faculty or lightning rod for feedback/sharing. There were no clear accounts to follow first, nothing central that really got academics excited. I wanted to create that, first because it’s confusing and boring to go online and not have a place to connect with others. Second, I was feeling burnt out and needed a laugh. There were also no humour accounts for faculty, aside from scattered student-shaming efforts and @PhDComics for grad students, so I made one. I am not a humour writer. But you don’t need to be great when there’s no competition; you just need to show up.

2.   Tone. I am not a generally positive person. So when deciding how to sound online, I went with my regularly scheduled deadpan, sarcastic, depressing, uncomfortably self-aware over-explanations that make for awkward conversation. I also pride myself on avoiding the wrath of colleagues by getting a laugh despite my interrupting their work as a way of procrastinating on mine. So the overall tone of @AcademicsSay was basically an extension of what I was already doing, just in a more distilled online format. I then found a recognizable meme that fit the tone and went from there. Fortunately, as non-intellectual or unintentionally humourous aspects of academic content tend to get the most attention on social media (e.g., the “Gabor” effect), I was immediately in business.

3.   Authority. I regularly get comments, questions, and surprisingly impassioned critiques about the account behavior; hopefully this section addresses some of that. In addition to content tone, I incorporated from the outset a set of implicit cues to convey authority to potential followers and expedite follow/retweet decisions. This was for two reasons: first, to provide an ironic take on the stereotypical aloof, egocentric academic persona; second, to mimic the profiles of existing viral parody accounts in the history or science domains. Some examples involving language, formatting, colour, and ratios are below.

4.   Language. The word “shit” in the account name implies irreverence or catharsis and is unexpected in academic timelines, grabbing attention while providing ironic context for otherwise curse-free content. The account handle remained curse-free to accommodate more respectable manual retweets. Similarly, “academics” not “professors” were referred to in the account name to convey faculty responsibilities beyond instruction (e.g., writing, tenure requirements, work-life balance). As the content was to be more “water-cooler gossip” or internal self-talk than in-class “dad jokes,” the less-than-student-centered approach was intentional.

5.   Formatting. Tweet text was formatted to exclude “all caps,” emoticons, exclamation points, and question marks to mitigate impressions of attention-seeking and uncertainty. In addition to facilitating a deadpan or aloof tone, ending sentences with periods was also a bit of a inside academic joke not unlike how Kanye West describes the private hilarity of not smiling. To not dissuade engagement among academics who are typically less than familiar with Twitter protocols, I also initially tried to avoid including nonintuitive hashtags (e.g., #ecrchat) and acronyms (e.g., H/T) in favour of more accessible terminology (e.g., via, courtesy of).

6.   Colour. The colour profile was also intentional. Although the specific profile image (“avi”) was selected almost at random from my cell phone, it needed to satisfy two  conditions: it had to show well at lower resolutions and needed to be red. The colour red was emphasized based on research showing red to implicitly convey competitive success and dominance in affiliative and advertising contexts (e.g., CNN, Time, Science, Netflix, BuzzFeed, TMZ, TED Talks) and to solicit more online engagement (e.g., link clicks) than other colours. The image itself is simply a cropped photo of a graffiti art gorilla I took on the sidewalk after a disappointing trip to the farmer’s market. I’d like to think the gorilla signified other elements (e.g., stoicism, “300-lb gorilla” metaphor), but it’s mainly just red.

7.   Ratios. The account also manipulated three Twitter ratios to implicitly convey authority. First, an exaggerated “following-to-follower” ratio was achieved by not following other accounts (as per other parody accounts) requiring unidirectional follows vs. reciprocal “followbacks.” Second, the “retweet-to-follower” ratio was bolstered by deleting tweets that did not sufficiently resonate; a ratio consistently held to around 0.001. For example, tweets in Spring of 2014 (~30K followers) that did not reach 30 retweets were omitted (typically within an hour), with the exception of tweets including links or promoting content intended for “clickthroughs” (current cut-off is ~150 retweets <1 hour, >1K likes on FB; see @TheTweetOfGod, @SoVeryBritish for comparable ratios). Third, deleting tweets with insufficient retweets helped to improve the “tweet-to-follower” ratio. Off-brand tweets promoting specific accounts, lists, hashtags, sites, etc. were similarly omitted to provide an on-brand, content-focussed read for timeline scrollers (“grooming”). Overall, these ratios were maximized to create the impression of an authoritative, non-reciprocal, content-provider account where each tweet not only resonated but gained substantial followers.

8.   Branding. Similar to other viral parody accounts, @AcademicsSay does not reply or retweet. Instead, standalone text reposted from other accounts is formatted as per a typical academic quotation (“…” – @source), or (more rarely) as a screenshot image, to visually associate or “rebrand” it with the account name and image. The quotation format is immediately recognizable to academics but differs from typical (less visually appealing) manual retweets in which acronyms and the original account are inserted before tweet content (e.g., RT “@source …”). This form of attribution is generally appreciated by those referenced, avoids “Twitter plagiarism,” and facilitates portability across platforms (e.g., Facebook, Tumblr). However, it can also be seen as particularly distasteful (especially screenshots) as it effectively affords self-promotion and metric gains at the expense of direct engagement with source accounts. Given the markedly ego-involving nature of not following someone on Twitter or Facebook, it’s perhaps not surprising that this strategy has to date been the most negatively received.

9.   Images. One of the most well-known and easily implemented ways of increasing Facebook or Twitter engagement is to just add an image (e.g., by 35%). So after waiting three months to ensure that text-based content was resonating with followers (~7K), relevant images were introduced. At this point, I had decided to use the account to recruit for off-line research and consciously opted to forego whatever old-guard, intellectual cache was attached to excluslively sardonic text in favor of incorporating more accessible, existing visual content that elicited a more visceral response (e.g., May 2014: doubling new followers/day to 450+ by doubling down on comics, graphics, and screenshots). Given a long-standing body of work by academic comic legends (e.g., PhD Comics, XKCD) and creative efforts of emerging webcomic artists (e.g., Errant Science, RedPen/BlackPen, The Upturned Microscope), finding content wasn’t hard and I finally had a chance to indulge my long-time love of cartoons. I eventually introduced original images and memes to capitalize on social media norms, mocked up preview graphics to increase clicks for news articles or blogs (16:9 to prevent awkward Twitter cropping, better Facebook previews), and started embedding square blog logos that are automatically grabbed when link is shared.

10.   Attribution. Given the emotional and financial investment involved in creating visual content for social media, I eventually started to receive responses from artists requesting that additional source information be included in posts beyond that contained in the image. And after a few requests by original artists (e.g., @MacLtoons, Kemson Cooper), online criticism when attribution was not included (e.g., Paris attack graphic), and an education on attribution and copyright by my friend Jorge Cham (@PhDComics) following an uncomfortable Twitter/email exchange with artist @twisteddoodles, I not only research the origins of posted artwork (e.g., TinEye, Karma Decay, Veracity) but try to provide linkbacks to within-platform accounts or external sites to not deprive artists of potential exposure or income. Although posting images without attribution or linkbacks is more efficient (particularly when source/contact info is embedded), a well-worn strategy for expediting growth (see @HistoryInPics, IFLScience), and not unpermitted in the Twitter TOS (see p. 22, Agence France Presse v. Morel), it is more susceptible to removal on Facebook or Twitter (DCMA takedowns) on copyright grounds and is not a good look for an academic audience uncommonly preoccupied with attribution.

11.   Anonymity. I ran the account anonymously until July 2015 for various reasons. First, I didn’t want my atypical online activities to somehow influence my tenure deliberations. It also helped to maintain a focus on the followers, underscoring the aim of the account to resonate based on shared experiences rather than a self-indulgent showcase of intellectual, writing, or humour abilities. In this way, followers were allowed to perceive their engagement more simply as sharing a laugh or connecting with others by way of satire, as opposed to endorsing the attention-seeking efforts of a specific individual. This decision also helped to circumvent the awkward self-esteem-loaded “followback” expectation otherwise encountered with personal Twitter accounts. In a similar vein, demographic cues involving nationality (e.g., American spelling), gender (typically assumed female), race, rank, or discipline that could unnecessarily complicate or bias content perception and mitigate engagement were avoided. As an anonymous account, I was also allowed more freedom to make mistakes and experiment in term of content (e.g., topics, attribution) or growth strategies (e.g., branding, promotion) without risk of direct criticism or reprisal.

Maybe it’s because academics tend to be familiar with blinded research and manuscript reviews that remarkably few people ever asked who I was. Or maybe it’s that social media platforms generally promote engagement over attribution, a point illustrated by Twitter adding the “quote tweet” function in 2015 while at the same time quietly removing the automatic insertion of quotation marks and account mention (used for manual retweets) when copying tweets in the app (making it much easier to plagiarize). Regardless, it was only after my tenure was confirmed, account influence exceeded relevant benchmarks, the cache of “coming out” could be reliably predicted to bolster off-platform efforts (study recruitment), and these unconventional online activities could be justified in part as a public service to non-social-media users that I wrote the Chronicle piece about the account (as agreed upon one year earlier). However, judging by continued confessions of love for “whoever you are” or “you guys,” and minimal spillover to my personal Twitter account, people generally don’t seem to notice or care who’s running the account.

12.   Efficiency. To promote initial growth, I also pre-prepared tweets that released automatically on apps like Buffer (Facebook pages provide in-platform scheduling) and used free sites like Tweriod to determine optimal tweet times (now largely irrelevant due to international reach). Not unlike other parody or satire accounts, I also regularly repeat content. Although I had previously deleted original tweets to disguise this strategy (some accounts delete tweets wholesale, presumably for the same reason), I now keep them up to gauge growth. I initially felt comfortable repeating only after a 6 month lag (consistent with previous Twitter API restrictions preventing older tweets from being viewed), but now tend to repost within 2-3 months due to a follower base big enough to ensure sufficient sharing from those who would not have seen it, would not remember seeing it, or would not mind seeing it again. Although some repeats are verbatim, others are reformatted or modified (e.g., replacing “book” with “blog” 9 days later) to improve engagement. As for the account meme, the “shit xxx say” format itself affords specific efficiencies, such as a focus on what others say (observation is much easier than inspiration) and basic text (Siri dictation while waiting at Starbucks vs. curated content or creating visuals), as demonstrated by even single-letter posts gaining traction. Finally, one unanticipated consequence of this meme is the extent to which it actually encouraged crowdsourced feedback (replies, mentions, emails) that has to date been highly effective in terms of providing off-platform content, pop culture phrases (e.g., “all of the things”, “Netflix and chill”), timely memes (e.g., Game of Thrones), or even grammatical improvements for repeat posts.

So there you go: a quick introduction to some of the more straightforward strategies adopted a priori or over time to expedite follow decisions and account growth for @AcademicsSay. For more on the roles of analytics, experimentation, and emotions, or more awkward topics such as plagiarism, haters, and monetization, check back for Parts 2 and 3 in the coming days.



Interview | The McGill prof behind ‘Shit Academics Say’

Author: Shawna Wagman
Original: University Affairs (10/21/2015)

Since Nathan Hall introduced the world to Shit Academics Say in 2013, his humorous Twitter account has become one of the most popular related to academia, with nearly 140,000 followers. Dr. Hall, an associate professor in the department of education and counselling psychology at McGill, says his once anonymous Twitter persona (he outed himself, so to speak, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in July) has woven itself into his life. His Twitter presence is part pastime, part social media experiment and a catalyst for his investigation into the subject of psychological well-being in academia. He recently spoke to University Affairs about his adventures.


Nathan Hall opens up about his fabulously popular Twitter persona

University Affairs: How did you first get interested in Twitter?

Dr. Hall: At first I went on [Twitter] admittedly for some self-promotion, to share the research that I had been doing. People didn’t really seem to care for that. Then I saw these accounts – parody accounts, joke accounts and meme accounts – that were taking off fairly quickly and I was curious about how they were doing it. There was the well-known Shit My Dad Says account – that’s actually how I learned about Twitter and why I thought it might be interesting. Also, there had been a lot of anxiety for me getting ready for tenure. At the time I was feeling fairly burnt out and disillusioned and I actually wanted to see if people felt the same way I did. What I realized is that people online, on Twitter and other social media, were engaged in sharing things more widely, talking more candidly about issues. I felt like I was missing out.

UA: What did you think you were missing? 

Dr. Hall: I realized that online, people were talking about the human issues related to the profession. I discovered this whole anonymous professors’ subculture on Twitter where they were connecting with each other over manuscript reviews and students. I started watching the accounts that were popular, like that of Raul Pacheco-Vega, watching what he was doing to connect scholars with each other. I was also watching meme accounts, like Research Ryan that got pretty popular. I had to google what the word “meme” meant to find out what it was. Then I attempted my own – Research Wahlberg (appropriating the image of American actor Mark Wahlberg) – on a dare to share a laugh and connect with people over issues that I thought I struggled with alone. Basically I settled on Wahlberg as an unconventional character trying to pass off statistics and research methods while being flirty or seductive, which to me was just a joke in itself. Eventually it got awkward looking at half-naked pictures of Mark Wahlberg when I was on the train during my commute to work.

UA: And from there you started your Twitter account, Shit Academics Say?

Dr. Hall: It was actually my wife who suggested I needed a new hobby. At that point I had done what I needed to do to get tenure and so I had a bit more time to think. I started the account to try to talk about the kinds of things faculty talk about when they are finished class, when they see other faculty in the hallway, when they go to the mailroom or chat with the staff or admin people. I wanted to tap into that, an after-hours approach to how faculty feel privately, on the weekends when they are on a date and feeling guilty about not writing, or when they are in a meeting with a student. It’s the self-talk that you hear yourself engaging in. I wasn’t that comfortable with that because I’m still relatively new to the profession, I’ve been working for about six years. What I realized about social media is that it’s more fun when more people are playing. I thought I would try to get more people involved and I thought humour might be a good way to do that.

UA: Why did you make the account anonymous?

Dr. Hall: I started off anonymously just to make sure my age, race, gender, discipline, none of that, would get in the way of the content. I think removing myself and my ego allowed the account to travel faster because the focus was on the people reading it and sharing things rather than on the person writing it. Given that I was trying to be funny, I think people gave me the benefit of the doubt. There were a lot of jokes that really weren’t very funny. People replied saying thank you for trying to share some laughs.

UA: What are some of the rules or parameters you set for yourself about how you engage on Twitter with this account?

Dr. Hall: Certain things I did to mimic other accounts, while other things I developed on my own. I learned that the best way to try to grow an account quickly is using implicit cues to convey authority. I don’t have questions, I have statements. There are no question marks, no exclamation points, no all-caps. I hoped that people would recognize that this was a little bit of a persona, a gag, a shtick, much like Kanye West refusing to smile in photos. There are other things I do that are pretty typical on Twitter to command authority: I don’t follow anyone, I don’t reply or retweet. It’s part of a branding strategy to get your account to grow more quickly.

I also engage in timeline grooming, which means I delete tweets that don’t hit very well with people – it makes everything you produce look more authoritative. People don’t realize you can delete tweets and that you can manage an online presence the way you would host a dinner party, in that you clean up ahead of time. People come to the account and they see a low number of tweets with a high number of followers and each tweet has a high number of retweets. All of this combines to make for an authoritative persona which I then counter with clear and honest heartfelt expressions of gratitude for people supporting the account.

UA: Let’s talk about being funny. How do you come up with the funny tweets? Have you discovered an academic sense of humour?

Dr. Hall: I’m not sure if there is an academic sense of humour. My sense of humour tends to be a bit dry, deadpan, a bit of a buzzkill type thing. To me it’s very funny if it makes people laugh at something they shouldn’t be laughing at. It’s more meta-level: I make jokes about making jokes; jokes about metaphors. The sequence of the tweets is sometimes a joke to me too: I post one thing that’s very funny and then one thing that’s hilarious and then one thing about how an academic quit his job, so it’s a rhythm and it actually builds momentum.

I tend to use idioms and proverbs. I like to take quotes that have been done before and just change the ending. For example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it as a question.” Or “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That’s a quote from Albert Einstein but I attribute it to “someone with limited experience trying to explain things to a six-year-old.” Some of these quotes, they sound very profound but when you try and incorporate them as useful life lessons in academia, they aren’t as useful as you might think.

UA: How do you incorporate tweeting into your life? Do you dedicate a certain amount of time each day to working up jokes, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?

Dr. Hall: I drop my daughter off at daycare and my son off at school and then I have a 47-minute train ride and an 18-minute walk to get up the hill to my office at McGill so some days I can be commuting for three hours. That’s why I ended up getting on Twitter in the first place. On the train you don’t have room for a laptop but you do have room for a cell phone to scan what people are writing and thinking. Other times throughout the day – waiting at the Starbucks’ drive-thru or waiting at my daughter’s ballet lesson, or while I’m on the treadmill – I use that time to read things on Twitter. I could also dictate text into my phone and release it later. I could actually crowd source in the sense that I could put something online, and people would comment back, which would give me more ideas about the kinds of things people wanted to joke about. It’s a bit of a weird juxtaposition because when I get notifications on my phone, I’m often in weird places. I’m outside Pharmaprix finding out that I’m being discussed on CBC radio, or coming out from watching Captain America to find out that the hashtag I started, #yomanuscript, was trending in Australia for some reason. The online Twitter celebrity juxtaposed with everyday family and academic life I find amusing. You’re changing a diaper and meanwhile on Twitter, people are calling you brilliant.

UA: What has Twitter celebrity done for you?

Dr. Hall: It really hasn’t done much. It’s just an opportunity to promote my work and give back. I’m very fortunate; a lot of people don’t have this. To receive tenure actually comes with a bit of privilege guilt. I have more time and I feel obligated to give back.

UA: Would you still stand behind your very first tweet: “Don’t become an academic”?

Dr. Hall: I am not sure. I was being sarcastic. I had become disillusioned from being on the tenure track and being burnt out after applying for grants that I didn’t need to try and demonstrate fundability, teaching classes that I didn’t have expertise in, and nominating myself for teaching awards in order to make sure I could keep my job. Everything on the Twitter account has a touch of sarcasm and often it has more than one meaning behind it.

UA: Tell me about the research that has come out of this social media experiment.

Dr. Hall: Since January of this year I’ve run three studies and recruited up to 9,000 people across almost 80 countries for research examining well-being and self-regulation in grad students and faculty. I’m looking at issues ranging from motivation and values, to procrastination, depression, work/life balance and coping strategies. I also look at hidden failure experiences that people don’t talk about. For example, I ask: How often do you have manuscripts rejected? Do you obtain sub-par teaching evaluations? Do you have grants rejected, or students leaving you as an advisor? It’s that hidden failure where you can walk around all day and not be able to talk about some of these things. I wanted to assess that.

I felt part of the reason faculty go online is because of the isolation. You encounter a lot of things you can’t explain to other people, the feelings of failure where you work for months and write tens of thousands of words to win a grant and then you get absolutely nothing – it’s all or nothing. It’s a different feeling of failure than a student getting below a cut-off on a test. It’s an outright absolute abject failure that you often don’t talk about. That’s where social media comes in and connects people to each other to share experiences, to talk candidly about these issues. I can explore these issues empirically now – I can look at self-regulation and what strategies are more effective for dealing with stress among different types of faculty in different countries. There aren’t really very many others who have used social media to this extent to allow this kind of research to be done. It is fun, it is engaging, and it’s a personal challenge to see how far I can go.

Interview | A Wry Look at Academic Life

Author: Andrew Mahon
Original: McGill News (08/18/2015)

Nathan Hall’s sly and witty observations about academic life have attracted a large group of devoted Twitter followers

According to a tweet from Nathan Hall, there are two types of academics: those who use the Oxford comma, those who don’t and those who should. (Give yourself a minute to let that sink in.)

One could argue that there’s a third (fourth?) type of academic, the kind who shares sardonic and pithy nuggets of academic wit with some 130,000 Twitter followers in what has become a wildly successful social media experiment called Shit Academics Say. That third group would have a single member — Nathan Hall.

Hall, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, is the man behind more than 2,000 humourous observations about life in academia (including the one referenced in the first sentence of this article). A former elite-level Angry Birds gamer in search of a new hobby, he launched Shit Academics Say under the username @AcademicsSay in September 2013.

“I started a Twitter account as a hobby; one where I didn’t have to leave the couch,” he explains. “It also seemed like an interesting way to connect with people.”

The idea of a ‘shit [insert group name] say’ meme seemed like a good fit for addressing the quirks of the university world — even if the concept had been done before.

“Academics are usually two to five years behind popular culture,” he says. “I knew the meme was dated but also that academics would easily recognize it.”

But from the first tweet from this account (“Don’t become an academic”), it was clear that Shit Academics Say was not going to be your grandfather’s social media hobby. By simply making jokes about academic life, @AcademicsSay attracted its first 10,000 followers in  five months and it was clear that Shit Academics Say had struck a chord with students and professors.

With an admittedly obsessive focus, Hall set his sights on Twitter world domination and employed painstaking research in his efforts to grow Shit Academics Say. He started applying growth hacking strategies, using images, colour, and punctuation strategically, pre-scheduling tweets, and posting in a timely manner (after Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Spock) died: “Live long and publish”). He also monitored analytics and edited content for broader appeal and international audiences — in a bid to build up his audience base in Australia, for instance, Hall carefully determined the optimal times for tweeting to that continent. When famed American statistician and writer Nate Silver re-tweeted @AcademicsSay (“Data are.”), Hall knew he was on the right track.

“My objective was to get my numbers as high as possible,” he says, “both as a personal challenge and to test its usefulness for actual research.”

Analytics aside, Shit Academics Say works because Hall is adept at sharing the primal themes of academic life, drawing on his research and experience to tweet about procrastination, writing (or not writing), guilt, tenure (or lack thereof), engagement and other emotional highs and lows.

“Academics want to laugh and I needed a laugh too,” he says.

Beyond the humour and the skewering of academic life, Hall’s Twitter followers provide a unique resource for research in his work as director of McGill’s Achievement Motivation and Emotion research group. By soliciting followers of his Twitter account (and its Facebook version with 94,000 followers), Hall has recruited approximately 9,000 faculty and graduate students from almost 80 countries for online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout.

“Shit Academics Say allowed me to reach a lot of people,” say Hall. “And I now have the opportunity to directly share the results of this research with others.”

Hall is now recognized as a bona fide social media authority. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently invited him to expound on how he developed @AcademicsSay, noting that Hall’s sly Twitter offerings have earned more attention on social media than the official Twitter accounts of such august universities as Harvard and Oxford. Hall has some advice for all those bi-monthly Twitter authors out there looking to take their tweets to the next level.

“It’s important to understand what the platform is and take advantage of its unique features,” he says. “Do some research, do something different and share real elements of your life. Share your insights, thank others for sharing, ask questions and, above all, have fun.”

A sampling of what @AcademicsSay:

@AcademicsSay: The Story Behind a Social Media Experiment

Author: Nathan Hall
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

I am not an intellectual, leading expert, or public scholar. I am a rank-and-file academic with the job of balancing respectable research with acceptable teaching evaluations and sitting on enough committees to not be asked to sit on more committees. And in my spare time, I run what is arguably one of the most influential academic accounts on social media: Shit Academics Say.

Since starting the account in September of 2013, it has grown to over 122,000 followers, gaining 250 to 300 new followers daily and ranking in the top 0.1 percent across social media influence metrics such as Klout, Kred, and Followerwonk. To unpack this a bit, tweets sent from my phone while recalibrating dopamine levels on the treadmill, or waiting outside my 3-year-old’s ballet class, are showing up in about 10 million Twitter streams and generating 200,000 to 300,000 profile visits a month, effectively making @AcademicsSay a bigger “social authority” on Twitter than nearly all colleges and academic publications. Not weird at all.

Although this might sound impressive, the popularity of the account is perhaps not surprising. First, academics use Twitter mainly for distraction, with tweets providing humorous details of academic content typically gaining the most exposure. Second, it is immediately apparent to new Twitter users that parody accounts like @kimkierkegaardashian, @NoToFeminism, or @SwiftOnSecurity tend to be more popular than traditional outlets — an observation that sparked an idea for how to personally connect with other academics in a not-boring way and on a scale large enough to have my procrastination count as research.

Like many academics, I have never been completely comfortable with the peculiarities, predilections, or pretentions of our profession, and have over time found myself both ashamed and amused while telling students to “please have a seat while I sit three feet away and finish this non-urgent email for the next five minutes”, or telling myself “I should be writing” when doing anything remotely enjoyable. And since starting this profession six years ago, I have also been regularly confused and frustrated by the cognitive dissonance I regularly encountered as part of trying to stay productive, employable, and, most important, fundable.

As a grad student, I had often heard that a retirement boom was coming, that course evaluations should not be believed until the third time around, and that all resubmitted manuscripts and grant applications are eventually accepted. However, I personally found these sentiments to be less than comforting after my own failed job applications (90-plus over two years), unsuccessful grant applications (15 since 2000), soul-crushing course evaluations (“He should have applied some of the motivational principles he teaches about to his own teaching.” — Winter 2015, paraphrased), and unjustified manuscript rejections (“I am a jealous and generally unhappy person.” — Reviewer 2, paraphrased).

And very much unlike a detached analysis of affect in which I was well-trained, I increasingly found myself dealing with unexpected combinations of emotion such as boredom/anger while grading, guilt/envy while reviewing a manuscript I should have written, or relief/shame after an internal grant deadline was extended. As an experienced overthinker, I was also able to convince myself that these wonderfully nuanced internal experiences were somehow unique to my beautiful mind. Whether it was self-disappointment over writing guilt on date night, resentment while teaching night classes instead of reading bedtime stories to my kids, or using humor to avoid feeling like a fraud while teaching content learned the day before or writing papers few would ever read, well-worn constructs like work-life balance and impostor syndrome didn’t seem to fit.

But I shouldn’t complain. I get paid to think about thinking about thinking, and start my first sabbatical this summer to ostensibly gain a “fresh perspective on an old problem” (aka: binge-watching Entourage). However, after a difficult year prepping my seventh new course in four years, accepting my sixth concurrent graduate student, and writing over 50,000 words to win at least one of three federal grants, I was burned out. I struggled to enjoy teaching, had little interest in writing, and, most heart-breaking of all, was no longer impressed by that special brand of meta-angst that can only come from grappling with motivational issues as a motivation researcher.

So why a Twitter account.

By the fall of 2013, I had done everything needed for tenure and was unusually motivated to do something that did not need a good reason. Something just for me, and not my CV. Although I had long disliked Twitter for its propensity for oversharing and groupthink, growing an anonymous parody account seemed like a not-boring way to poke fun at the profession that made my head hurt, maybe take myself a bit less seriously, and test an alternative hypothesis that I was not alone in being confounded by the curiosities and psychological challenges of an academic career.

What I quickly learned from Twitter was that my personal academic experiences were not at all unique, and more importantly, that it could be worse. Much worse. I was not a minimum-wage adjunct struggling to manage 12 courses a year and being fired at the end of each term. Nor was I a female, LGBTQ, or racial-minority scholar facing pretenure demands compounded by institutionalized roadblocks, or at risk of having my tenure revoked or position terminated by politicians or university donors. I was (and still am) a middle-to-upper-class white male who, although had trained for years for a job that perhaps wasn’t as intrinsically rewarding as expected, had job security, grant funding, and enough free time to Google “privilege guilt.”

So I soon started to take Twitter more seriously, and in addition to attempts at humor during my commute or while debating between an evening shift and Netflix, took a page from academic Twitter pioneers like Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco) and began to experiment with academic community building. To my surprise, followers whom I had assumed were there just for the jokes seemed to very much appreciate referrals to informative hashtags, resource accounts, or professional-development blogs (e.g., #ScholarSunday, #GetYourManuscriptOut, @SUWTues, @AcademicKindes), with single tweets crashing websites and prompting unsolicited social network analyses or blog analytics.

More unexpectedly, this account also provided me an enviable VIP pass to connect with academics over some of the most fun, irreverent, and NSFW academic hashtags in recent years. Ranging from cathartic tweets about manuscript rejections (#SixWordPeerReview) and awkward attempts at romance (#AcademicValentines) to a torrent of sarcastic humor in response to gender bias (#DistractinglySexy), it’s hard to describe the giddy grade-school excitement of jumping into a rapid-fire fray of remarkably creative, clever, and brutally honest tweets from academics around the world ­— a uniquely engaging and not-often-enough experience unlike anything else in academia. And although I did occasionally attempt my own super-creative hashtags (e.g., #SixWordPaperTitle, #YoManuscript), I eventually settled on a better use for the account.

Over the past six months, @AcademicsSay has allowed me to recruit over 6,800 faculty and graduate students from over 60 countries to participate in three online studies on topics ranging from procrastination and impostor syndrome to work-life balance and burnout, resulting in one of the most comprehensive and international investigations of psychological well-being in academia to date. So beyond the account making my academic life maybe a bit less boring, perhaps the most important part of this experience for me has been the sobering realization of how deeply and widely these psychological challenges resonate with other academics and that I am in a unique position do something about it.

By January of 2014, I had reached 10,000 followers simply by joking about these issues, and was curious about how effective @AcademicsSay could be for conducting actual research. So I dusted off a failed grant proposal from 2011, submitted an ethics application, and started to apply “growth hacking” strategies to maximize account reach (e.g., adding images, pre-scheduling tweets, using Twitter lists). I began to pay attention to follower and tweet analytics, curate content for international exposure and cross-disciplinary appeal, and even created a graduate course on the topic as well as a parallel Facebook page that now reaches up to 1.5 million followers a week.

Basically, I have over the past 18 months been telling jokes on the internet and teaching myself about social media to give myself a meaningful shot at turning my anonymous online procrastination into an actual research program. Again, not weird at all.

So there you go. What was started as a private social experiment borne out of confusion and frustration quickly turned into something more: a one-of-a-kind experience of connecting with a previously unknown academic community through humor, an unexpected education in social media and higher-education issues, and an obligation to expand my research to address a very real need for longitudinal, large-scale studies on self-regulation and well-being in academia.

If you are a professor or graduate student and wish to participate in our study, please visit www.ame1.net/sas. If you follow at @AcademicsSay on Twitter or Facebook, thank you once again for your support.

And if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to convince yourself that pursuing an academic career was a not a terrible mistake, that your work impacts anything other than your CV, or that “data” is plural yet “agenda” is somehow not, you are not alone. I’m not sure if it gets better, but I’ll certainly look into it and get back to you 😉