What is it about?

The shift of academic discussions to online spaces without guardians gives motivated cyberbullies from Higher Education an opportunity to harass susceptible recipients. Such cyberbullying is a neglected phenomenon; despite the dangers it poses to academic free speech as well as other negative outcomes. In the absence of an adequate definition for Online Academic Bullying (OAB) as a surfacing threat, its’ targets cannot readily gauge its severity or confidently report that they are victims. Nor do their attackers have a reference point for understanding and, perhaps, correcting their own incivility. To remedy this, we propose an analytical framework grounded in Routine Activity Theory (RAT) that can serve as an appropriate reporting instrument. The OABRAT framework is illustrated with an Emeritus Professor’s case, who experienced particular forms of cyber harassment not covered by the traditional definitions of academic bullying and mobbing. This scientific influencer was relentlessly attacked on social media platforms by varied academics for expressing contrarian, but evidence-based, opinions.

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Why is it important?

Spotlighting OAB’s distinctive attacks should raise awareness amongst researchers and institutional policy makers. We flag ethical concerns related to dissident scholars’ usage of online platforms for informal, public debates. Such scholars may face an asymmetrical challenge in confronting cyber harassment from hypercritical academics and cybermobs on poorly moderated platforms. Universities should therefor consider appropriate countermeasures to protect both the public and their employees against victimisation by academic cyberbullies. The OABRAT reporting instrument may further assist with identifying and confronting this threat.


There seems to be very little conceptual or empirical research concerning academic employees who harass scholars online. Adjunct professor Tim Noakes and I wrote our article to flag how cyberbullying from HE employees is a neglected phenomenon, despite the dangers it can pose to academic free speech, as well as other negative outcomes. With the expansion of the use of social media, academics interact with others online and legitimate informal debates or ‘online academic bullying' (OAB) can ensue. Our article makes a novel conceptual contribution by identifying OAB and defining it as: "a drawn-out situation in which its recipient experiences critique online by employees in HE that is excessive, one-sided and located outside of typical scholarly debate and accepted standards for its field." To our knowledge, research on this digital form of intellectual harassment by academic cyberbullies was non-existent. We propose that scholars forced to negotiate OAB are facing a new threat to academic free speech. We flag that OAB techniques can suppress both legitimate dissent and scholars’ digital voices.

Dr Travis M Noakes
Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Distinguishing online academic bullying: identifying new forms of harassment in a dissenting Emeritus Professor's case, Heliyon, February 2021, Elsevier,
DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e06326.
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