Reflections on #ResearchFishGate

So… this is a quick post because I’m pushed for time, but if you’ve not heard about #ResearchFishGate, then’s here’s a quick primer from Research Professional’s Sophie Inge.

Short version… academics have been complaining on social media about having to make their annual returns on their funded projects. In the best of all possible worlds, with the best possible system for collecting such information, academics would still complain about having to do it. Academics always complain about admin. However, I don’t think that accounting for how you’ve used public (or charity) money is itself unreasonable.

“I have shared my concerns with your funder”

However, I think the bulk of the complaints in this case have been less about having to do it at all, but about the software/platform that’s used to do it and whether this information is every actually used. I’ve not been involved in supporting ResearchFish returns for some time now, but my impression is that the platform has improved. But clearly not as fast as some people would like.

ResearchFish have – for some time – been, er, trawling twitter for mentions and have been responding to any criticism with a fairly standard form of words.

We understand that you’re not keen on reporting on your funding through Researchfish but this seems quite harsh and inappropriate. We have shared our concerns with your funder.

https://twitter.com/Researchfish/status/1504542085369712640

There have since been a number of apologies and attempted apologies, UKRI and other funders have weighted in, and it’s been a bit of a mess. At the time of writing it remains unclear whether concerns were shared with the funder in question, though there are stories on twitter of academics being ordered in front of HR/Heads of School to explain themselves. So something has been going on.

Responding to legitimate criticism with threats to report critics to funders has gone down very poorly indeed. Researchers have questioned the GDPR implications… how does ResearchFish know which funder to “share their concerns” with? Is it misusing data?

Anyway, never mind all that

I’m less interested in the specifics of #ResearchFishGate and more interested in the broader issues raised about social media use. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw the tweet and had a moment of alarm… who or what have I criticised? Have I gone too far? Is anyone going to share their concerns with my funder?

I have permission, approval and (occasionally) encouragement for my social media activities. (It helps when your meta-meta-meta-boss is Registrarism). With the proviso that I don’t “start slagging off funders on twitter”. And I have been a good boy.

However… you don’t get very far on Twitter if you’re in corporate drone mode. I wrote something about social media personas in 2014 (2014!), in which I argued for “smart casual” as a sensible Twitter approach. Adam-at-work, if you will. By showing my human side, I build relationships. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. And if I didn’t build networks and relationships, then what’s the point?

One key point from #ResearchFishgate is that few/none of the critiques actively @-ed ResearchFish onto the discussion. They were talking about ResearchFish, not to ResearchFish. This is a really important point. However….

Of course ResearchFish has a Twitter search column for mentions of their name. I have one for links to my blog so I can find out if anyone’s tweeting about it (spoiler: they’re usually not). I have one for an LSE Impact Blog article I wrote in which I definitely don’t slag off funders, and occasionally I’ll set them up for Research Professional articles I’ve written. And I’m just a vain blogger who craves validation, not a corporate behemoth.

So anyone who tweets about ‘ResearchFish’ or any other funder or ecosystem platform or player, even without @-ing them in is being naive in thinking that they won’t see it. Perhaps even if you disguise the name to evade searches.. they might have that search set up too. Replacing all the vowels with “*” in the style of some newspapers and swearing isn’t that original.

The traditional social media advice was always that it’s public and permanent… don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want everyone else to see…. who knows what will go viral (possibly wildly out of context)? Of the comments I’ve seen, some do include industrial language, but if there have been any that are abusive of individuals or even @-ing ResearchFish in, I’ve not seen them.

I’m sure it’s not nice to read that people don’t like your product… especially if it’s something you’ve worked very hard on trying to improve… none of us like criticism when we’re doing our best. We especially don’t like it if we can’t use it to improve in any way… but the answer is to grow a thicker skin and ignore it. It would be entirely sensible to use twitter as sentiment analysis, and to look for feedback – especially if there are concerns or issues that can be addressed instantly with user guide advice, or which can be fed back to the Devs. That’s okay.

It’s not okay to trawl twitter for mentions and then issue threats. It might be okay… just about… to make a polite enquiry in response to criticism and ask how the product could be improved. But it’s still barging – uninvited – into someone else’s conversation, even if it’s conversation that’s in the public square.

And I think that’s something that has changed during the pandemic. The tweets that drew the ire of the Fish of Research are the kind of thing that would – in the before-times – probably have been said around the metaphorical water cooler. Only we’re not there any more so often… we’re working from home, or our colleagues are. We have our Teams chats, but that’s generally work stuff, or work-flavoured. But Twitter’s right there, it’s a different and broader social circle. We’re all feeling more alone, more atomised… so those of us on Twitter are perhaps leaning to it more for conversation, companionship, interaction, and validation than before.

I’ve complained about an issue that… in hindsight… I probably shouldn’t have done, as it’s an internal University of Nottingham issue. But I learned that it’s a problem elsewhere too, that people agreed it was a problem and I heard some extra-egregious examples of the kind of thing I complained about. So I don’t regret doing it. I have raised it with my colleagues, but I think they’ve had enough of me moaning about it. Also… what can they really say? We’re in agreement about it.

Conclusions?

Are there any? I guess so. A few lessons.

(1) Big Brother is watching you. Criticise any product and organisation on Twitter – even without @-ing them in – and you should assume that they’ll see it. None of the old advice has changed about social media use and who might see it. Indications are that employers are getting more stringent/intrusive about this.

(2) The default assumption for any organisation (or public figure) being criticised is that they’re talking about you, not to you. Without an @, it’s a private conversation, and you should think very carefully before intruding. And then you probably shouldn’t unless you think your intervention might be welcome.

(3) In spite 0f (1), I do think that the pandemic/wider social media use means that there should be greater allowances for social media use. A conversation can both be in the public square and be a private conversation, with at least some allowances for language and tone. Perhaps X wouldn’t have criticised ResearchFish in precisely those terms and with precisely that language if X knew they were eavesdropping, but the overall sentiment would be the same. That’s not to say that there aren’t still lines that shouldn’t be crossed… just that perhaps the tolerance band should be broader than before.

This entry was posted in Frustrations, Public Sector, Social Media, University culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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