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Blog: Hacking Academia — A field-tested guide on copyright infringement

From The Shoulders of Giants
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Written by: Dr. Foland
Published on: November 6, 2020

Hacking Academia
A book that (maybe) exists. I did not write this.

Late one night about a week ago we received a chat request through this website that asked the following: "Hello! I preordered Hacking Academia — A field-tested guide on how to become a better scholar, student, and academic. Could you let me know when I will receive the ebook? Thank you." Very strange, but I've gotten much weirder requests. "This is not an ebook we offer! Sorry!", I replied, and the client disconnected without responding. I completely forgot about this interaction until today when a new community member joined our Discord server and asked, effectively, the same question. I quickly checked to make sure it wasn't the same guy, perhaps unsatisfied with my late-night chat app answer. Nope, this was a new person, and this one gave me a link...

So, long story short, it turns out that someone out there is "publishing" a book titled Hacking Academia under the username of "Shoulders of Giants, Inc" [sic]. I put "publishing" in hard quotes there since the release date has apparently been pushed back more than once. What is this, a CD Projekt Red game? What is this, the Nevada election results? What is this [another humorous reference that is going to age poorly]?

I'm not going to link the book because a) I don't want anyone wasting their hard-earned $32 on this if it ever does come out, and b) I'm pretty sure it never is going to come out. A few red flags immediately jumped out at me:

  1. The pictures of the book are clearly digital renders.
  2. There is absolutely no author attributed to this book.
  3. This:

"Schoulders of Giants" [sic]

The content described in the chapter-by-chapter breakdown is an interesting mixture of trite, obvious, and (very occasionally) intriguing. That said, as a recovering academic myself, the topics are just close enough to my wheelhouse that I'm afraid somebody out there is going to think I lost my mind and wasted my time writing this book. To help dispel this notion (and maybe save somebody out there some money), here is my version of the content, based only on the chapter titles given in the product description (which, for all we know, might be the only part of this book that has been written at this point). Some of my responses are informative, some are dismissive, but at least I'm not charging you money for these hot takes:

Chapter 1: What is the Hacking Academia mindset

Considering that there is already another book out there titled Hacking Academia and the author of this book is using our company's name, I assume that the "Hacking Academia mindset" involves copyright infringement.

Chapter 2: Highly effective tactics for winning grants and scholarships

There is no magic to winning grants and scholarships, but there are some steps you can take that will greatly improve your chances for success.

  • Apply to as many opportunities as you can find and always keep your eyes open for new opportunities.
  • Apply for the big ones (like the NSF GRFP here in the States), but don't dismiss the little ones - they add up and are oftentimes easier to win.
  • Talk to your colleagues, professors, and mentors about what you are looking for. They may be able to point out opportunities you haven't heard of before.
  • Practice your writing diligently and ask people you trust (preferably those who have had success with grant writing!) to review your submissions and provide feedback.
  • Network well and curate your contacts for strong recommendation letters.

I cannot emphasize that last point enough. Rec letters a big part of the decision making process, especially for scholarships. In addition to that, having a strong network will help you in every aspect of your career, so it's really a no-brainer! My only caveat to this is to be genuine in your interactions and don't try to rush this. People can tell the difference between sincerity and manipulative schmoozing. I said "strong network" not "big network", remember? Quality over quantity.

Chapter 3: Shadow Libraries and how to use them
A completely unrelated GIF of Alexandra Elbakyan waving. So friendly!
Shadow libraries are databases that provide "creative" (read: illegal) ways to get around paywalls and other access controls.[1] I'm not going to list any here - they tend to be easy to find on Google, and I don't want to be complicit in your crimes. I can't officially condone the use of shadow libraries, but I'm not going to fully condemn them either. Access to information is important and is the backbone of research across all branches of STEM and beyond. I find it particularly egregious when publicly funded research gets locked behind paywalls so that people now have to pay a publishing company to access the research that they already effectively paid for. And for anyone wondering what percentage of that fee goes to the original researchers and institutions: that number is zero. But I digress...

In theory, if you are performing research at a research institution, university, etc., that institution has most likely already paid for campus-wide access to the majority of publications you need. However, smaller journals and more niche sources are invariably going to slip through the cracks, and you'll find yourself either paying for or finding alternative means for access. First off, I don't recommend paying for a publication based on its abstract alone - there's no guarantee it will even be useful to you, and the costs add up quickly. The "responsible" advice is to email the original author(s) and ask them to send you a copy. This isn't bad advice, actually; most, if not all, authors are happy to have others out there citing their work, and there is nothing illegal about the original copyright owners distributing their own work. Unfortunately, this method can be slow and is unreliable, especially if the authors have moved on to other institutions and no longer have access to their listed email addresses.

My "grey area" advice here is to limit your use of shadow libraries to use as a backup to legitimate methods. I generally end up reading 8-10 papers for every 1 paper I cite, which would be a whole heck of a lot of wasted time and money if I had to wait for each and every author to respond or pay for individual access to every article. Best practices, though, find a legitimate source of any paper you're going to end up citing, and if there are no legitimate ways to access a particular paper, it's probably not a source you should be citing anyway. Nobody wants to see this in the peer review process:

Reviewer #2's comments: "What the heck is a .onion URL doing in your sources? I'm not clicking that link."

Chapter 4: Tried and tested methods to read and comprehend papers and articles faster than ever before

Three things I never trust: fad diets, "get rich" self-help books, and people claiming to have "tried and tested" solutions to help you study faster and more effectively. Here's my approach; some of it might work for you, some of it might not, as everyone has their own unique learning style.

  1. Locate as many recent papers on a given topic as you can find.
  2. Read their abstracts first, then their figures and captions.
  3. Prune the list if needed - not every paper is a winner.
  4. Take a look at the references of all of the remaining papers. If there are any citations that show up more than once, track those papers down too.
  5. Repeat Steps 2-4 until you have an exhaustive list of papers on the topic.
  6. Read all of the papers you located in Step 1 to get modern context in the field. Take notes.
  7. Read the papers you located in Steps 4 and 5 in whatever order works best for you. Take notes.

Step 7 is probably the most nuanced and personal step, and, honestly, Step 6 might be better to skip altogether for people who prefer to approach things chronologically. I tend to take a top-down approach, where I read a paper, then its citations, then their citations, etc., but sometimes this leaves me lacking some critical piece of context and I need to back up and approach things more from the bottom-up. Try a few things out and see what works best for you. Just don't forget to take notes.

Chapter 5: A comprehensive guide to whether a PhD is worth it

This is like the Cookie Monster "One of These Things is Not Like the Others" intermission of this book, man. Good topic, the placement just feels off.

Do you want to go into a field that requires a PhD? Do you love the idea of doing independent research and being an expert in a field? Do you just really, really want a PhD because its on your bucket list? If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, keep reading. Everyone's reason for wanting a PhD is different, and I gave up on trying to curate a comprehensive list of the "right" reasons for wanting a PhD years ago - it's a personal journey. I do, however, know a few "wrong" reasons for wanting a PhD: Did you put numbers in an Excel spreadsheet and find out you could earn more money by the time you are XX years old if you get a PhD? Are you having trouble finding a job after your Master's, so you might as well stick around in grad school? Do you not really want a PhD, but someone told you that you need to get one? None of those reasons are, in my personal experience, ever enough to sustain someone through the long hours and sacrifice needed to actually make the most of a PhD program.

Did somebody say long hours and sacrifice? That's right, fasten your seatbelts, kids.

So you think you have a "right" reason for wanting a PhD... Focus on that reason in your mind and ask yourself: "Do I want this badly enough to spend 4-5 years living on poverty-level wages, working 80+ hours a week, and managing midterms-week levels of stress almost continuously?" It's ok if you flinched a little bit at that question, but if it made you want to abandon the idea altogether, then it might be a good idea to listen to your gut for now.

Chapter 6: Dissertation writing for dummies (The bit-by-bit method almost guaranteed to help you finish that thesis)

Wow! Bit-by-bit? I never thought of that! Here are some other trite methods you might consider using to complete arduous tasks:

  • Drinking a bathtub full of water - One glass at a time! Pace yourself and take frequent breaks.
  • Eating an elephant - One bite at a time! Chew thoroughly and maybe consider a side of rice.
  • Completing a journey of a thousand miles - Start with a single step! You may also consider breaking this task into chunks to make it more approachable. For example, The Proclaimers recommend first walking 500 miles then walking 500 more.

My own snark aside, "bit-by-bit" is a good approach to take to just about anything, but I wouldn't fill a whole chapter with it. The first day you start on your PhD research project is the day you start writing your dissertation - whether you realize it or not. Just make sure you don't lose any of it along the way. What do I mean by this? Save every piece of data you generate. Screenshot every microscope image you take. Save a copy of every paper you read and the notes you took while reading it (you did take notes, didn't you?). And for goodness sake, back up your data in a safe place.

My point is, you don't have to be actively writing to be working on your dissertation bit-by-bit. A good dissertation is built on good research, and good research takes time and diligence. Just please, please don't overestimate your own memory or take sources, images, or bits of data for granted. Four years is a long time, my friend. That paper you looked at every day for 6 months? You aren't even going to be able to remember the title of it, much less the author's name, three years later when it comes time to cite it. Save everything! It is part of your dissertation, even if you haven't put it in a LaTeX document yet.

One last anecdote because I am not joking around about this: I knew someone in grad school whose dissertation defense committee tentatively approved his dissertation, but asked him to include an SEM micrograph of one of the devices he had fabricated 2 years ago. Because he had lost / broken / thrown away that device (I can't remember which), he had to re-learn his entire fabrication process, make a new version of the device, and take images of it - all of which took about a month. Save everything!

Chapter 7: The Secret Student Productivity Strategy: Do Deep Work in Less Hours

Reading this chapter title gave me flashbacks to the time an acquaintance of mine gave me a review copy of his self-published self-help book on the topic of productivity. An actual, honest to goodness piece of advice from the portion I read: "You're wasting time sleeping 8 hours every night! I've trained my body to only need 4 hours of sleep a night, so now I have 25% more time to work!" Yeah, dawg, we've all been in our early 20s before. That crap catches up to you.

There are no "secret" productivity solutions, and I know an awful lot of people who have gotten themselves very, very stressed out trying to find one. You are going to have productive days, weeks, and months, and you are going to have unproductive days, weeks, and months; there's no getting around that. My best advice, and the closest thing to a "magic bullet" solution that I have, is this: take care of yourself, both mind and body. Don't neglect your physical or mental health, and take time every day to get some exercise and do something that makes you happy. And if you do have a bad day / week / month? Let yourself off the darn hook about it. Like I said, it happens to everybody, and it doesn't mean anything is wrong with you, that you aren't smart, or that you don't belong where you are. Impostor syndrome is one of the biggest productivity sinks I know of; don't let it get you!

Chapter 8: Journal submissions made easy – the tools and tactics used by the most successful academics

Read lots of papers from lots of journals in your field, get a feel for what types of research fits best in what journals, and don't get overly hung up on journal impact factors. It's ok (recommended, even) to tailor a paper to a specific journal to some extent, but don't go nuts with it. If a paper based on high quality research seems like a stretch for your target journal, a) it probably is, and b) I guarantee you there is a better journal for it out there.

Listen, I'm not even a "real" academic, so take this advice with a grain of salt, maybe: Good publications come from good research. Focus on your research and look at publication as finding a good home for it. Simple as that. I've watched a lot of time wasted arguing over authorship order, debating whether to split research into two smaller papers or put it all in one big paper, and nail-biting about whether publishing a breakthrough in a conference proceeding first was going to hurt a piece of research's chances of making it into Nature. Take a deep breath, then: read lots of papers, do good research, and practice your writing, in that order.

Final thoughts: Also be kind to your peer reviewers (even the mean ones). You don't know who they are, but they know who you are!

Chapter 9: How to get press for your research

First you need to ask yourself: Do I really want press for my research? If you're looking to move forward in academia and win grants, I promise you that having a click-bait article about your research get to the front page of Reddit isn't going to help you in any way, shape, or form. If you do want press for your research - for example, because you're thinking about forming a startup - then my advice is more or less the same as I gave for Chapter 2: Start curating your network. Talk to your university's media relations department, go to conferences, and connect with editors of the kind of outlets you want to be featured in.

So there you go: my (hopefully not too dismissive) takes on the topics covered in the shameless (and shameful) Hacking Academia. I welcome your feedback and further discussion on the matter - feel free to join our community if you haven't already and we can chat about it on Discord. And hey - if you were wondering when your pre-order was going to ship and you stumbled across this in time to cancel... why not take that money you saved and consider becoming a supporter of the real TSoG. :)

  1. J. Karaganis, Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education, The MIT Press, 2018.