Yesterday I was hacked for the first time. I should preface this story by saying I know how to use protection, but this phishing attempt slipped right through my defenses. I clicked on the link contained in a message in my Twitter inbox because I trusted the person it came from, without reading the text which accompanied it. The link took me to a page that promptly crashed my browser. I couldn’t be bothered rebooting at 4:58pm, so I closed everything up and got on the tram home.

Fifteen minutes later people started messaging me on Twitter to say that I had sent them a message saying saying “ROFL this pic i found of you had me dying lol” and a dodgy link. I kicked myself, because if I had read the text properly I would never have clicked it. I have over 2000 followers now; that’s a lot of people sending me a ‘please explain’, but there was nothing I could do from my phone. I was forced to watch, helpless, as the spam hit person after person.

The feeling of violation was intense.

I am careful about how I conduct myself on Twitter; I aim at all times to be pleasant and helpful, so I was furious that this lowlife hacker was making me look like a jackass. I was so upset I got off a couple of stops early, ran inside and changed my password before I set off to the school to pick up Thesis Whisperer Jnr. Unfortunately I was angry, rushed and not thinking clearly. I made the new password so long and infinitely subtle that, of course, I forgot it immediately. I had to go through the whole password setting process again the next time I tried to log in, which only made me more angry.

Apart from wondering aloud in words not fit for print about why anyone would spend their time doing something so pointless, this whole incident made me think about the importance of trust and reputation, especially in scholarly life. If you think about it, the whole academic enterprise couldn’t exist without these two ingredients. Sure we pay lip service to being critical and replicating each other’s experiments, but we all know that not enough checking goes on. In fact, some have begun to wonder whether replication is really a way to be sure of anything (read this fascinating New Yorker article if you are interested).

When I was a PhD student I was constantly worried about validity and reliability. I was doing qualitative research and took great pains to try and hook people into helping me analyse my data. I convened workshops to show professionals and scholars my data, but the audience just looked puzzled. I made my research participants watch hours of video of themselves and asked them questions until one of them exclaimed: “I don’t know Inger, you are the researcher! You tell me!”. Realising I had tried everyone’s patience long enough, I wrote papers and presented them at prestigious conferences, hoping that someone in the audience would point out my mistakes. No one ever did. I don’t for a minute believe this was because my work was perfect.

I did all these procedures in a fruitless attempt to be sure I had it ‘right’. I’m sure there are similar symptoms of methods anxiety in all disciplines. After a time I started to get the creeping  suspicion that no one other than me really cared whether or not I got it right – even my supervisor. Privately I wondered whether they all believed me and my findings because I am such a self assured public speaker. I discussed my anxieties with my colleague Dr Robyn Barnacle, who pointed out that the whole PhD endeavour is underpinned by the myth of the solo, heroic, individual researcher. In reality, most of us don’t do our best work alone. Robyn’s explanation helped me to understand that, despite the fact I could never really carry the burden of proof alone, I must carry on through my doubts. The rest of my anxiety, no doubt, stemmed from a bad case of ‘impostor syndrome’, which is said to infect PhD students more than any other group.

But now I am a actually I doctor I wonder if we academics really are as critical as we should be. To be more specific – I wonder if that criticality is aimed in the right direction. After a certain level of competence has been demonstrated, I believe that most academics trust their colleagues to be ethical, upright people who are careful with data. Sure, we look for research design flaws and argue about theories, but no almost no one has the time to check your analysis.  It would too much time and effort, which needs to be spent on our own work. We just assume the analysis has been done properly – and go on to argue furiously about how we would have done it differently.

This is why reputation is so crucial within academic communities; doing a PhD is one way to put money in your reputation ‘bank’. I wonder if being embedded in this culture of trust, makes me – and all academics – hypersensitive about threats to my reputation.  In his interesting book, ‘The upside of irrationality’, Dan Ariely notes that revenge and trust are really two sides of the same coin.  Aiely does a series of experiments which demonstrate that humans will trust people they have never met, as my Twitter followers trust me to post interesting links, but that we have a deeply seated drive for vengeance if that trust is violated. If you believe the evolutionary biologists  (I find the literature compelling, despite the tendency for many of the writers to over simplify) we have a finely tuned ability to detect cheating. Society is orderly, so this theory goes, because most of us will seek to punish betrayal, even if we suffer some personal cost and loss to do so.

This probably explains why the very worst crime you can commit in academia is plagiarism. Words are our currency. When you commit plagiarism you are essentially stealing the building blocks of someone else’s reputation. Luckily for me, many of my Twitter followers quickly realised that words used in the dodgy link did not ‘sound’ like me. I hope this meant that most of them didn’t have to go through the infuriating process of changing all their passwords. If you did – my sincerest apologies and if I ever catch that hacker I will make sure vengeance is mine!

What do you do to protect your reputation? Has it ever been threatened?

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