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Meet Oliver Back: The Customer Support and Community Manager for Scholarcy

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Jessica Rachid
8 min read

I was lucky to sit down with Oliver Back, the Customer Support and Community Manager for Scholarcy. We discussed his PhD in Cybernetics at the University of Reading and how he is now helping to make academic texts more accessible to all students through his work with Scholarcy. Oliver's unique experiences as a Specialist Autism Mentor and Assistive Technology Trainer have informed his approach to developing support channels and resources at Scholarcy with the aim of empowering students to confidently read, understand and apply knowledge from course material and other texts.  

His approach caters to students with diverse needs, including those with ADHD, autism, and dyslexia, and gradually introduces them to a range of features, processes and tools that can help them improve their information processing and learning outcomes. Oliver emphasises the importance of user-oriented design and shares personal insights on the value of downtime in academic pursuits.

JMR: Can you tell me a little about yourself, and your work with Scholarcy?

OB: When I was seventeen, I was looking at universities, thinking, ‘Which one am I going to go to?’

The University of Reading had a course in Cybernetics, which I was interested in and the Open Day was fantastic. Before I even began my course, I knew I wanted to do a PhD. But I didn’t know if I was smart enough to apply for a PhD in Cybernetics.

When I picked my dissertation project, my supervisor asked me, “If you’re interested in doing a PhD, why not apply? See where it goes.”

Miraculously, I was accepted into the programme to carry on studying Cybernetics for my postgraduate. I stuck around Reading conducting my research and I became a part-time Graduate Teaching Assistant and Hall Mentor at the university.

The nature of teaching means you are always talking to students.  You aren’t isolating yourself in a lab, doing experiments, analysis, or writing. That is how I came to find my role as a Specialist Autism Mentor and Assistive Technology Trainer, working with Optimum Student Support.

When I found Scholarcy, I had finished my PhD, worked part-time in the education sector and was ready to start a career.

At the time, I had been using Scholarcy for about a year. What I liked about it most was that it wasn’t just presenting me with a wall of text but more of an accessible graphical abstract. Many people, both inside and outside of academia, struggle to read academic articles and truly understand what they are talking about.

Did you know that the average number of articles read in a year by an academic is around 300?

If you take the number of working days in a year, it is 250 to 260. So that is more than one article a day. The number of authors in an article has tripled in the last 100 years. Therefore, writing and publishing articles has become more convoluted. The number of citations has also significantly increased in the last decade which makes effective research even more challenging (Dai et al.,2021).

The time it takes to read articles has increased disproportionately, with estimations showing that scientists spend 23% of their time reading articles (Hubbard and Dunbar, 2017). Now there is so much overhead in the process of reading or screening lots of articles, but these papers are the only way researchers, lecturers and university students can obtain certain information because nobody is releasing textbooks to that level. It is simply too slow, so the format has to be an academic article. This is a barrier to entry for even some of the best minds in the field who just do not have the hours in the day to deal with this mountain of reading, alongside all of their other work. And that’s why they go into an industry and leave academia.

But Scholarcy makes academic articles more accessible, digestible, and easier to assimilate.

JMR: How have your experiences as an Autism Mentor and Assistive Technology Trainer informed your approach to developing support channels and resources for Scholarcy, and what strategies have you implemented to ensure the platform benefits users with diverse needs?

OB: There were so many things that I brought with me from working as an Autism Mentor and Assistive Technology Trainer with Optimum Student Support to my role as Customer Support and Community Manager for Scholarcy. In my first couple of weeks of joining the company, I started a huge list of suggestions for the development team to help make the software even better and more approachable for diverse readers.

For dyslexic users, for example, there was a study where they looked at a bunch of standard fonts, whether they were dyslexia-friendly or not, and they discovered that Times New Roman was the best font when you normalise all the character heights. This meant that dyslexic readers could interpret the text faster, find it less stressful or daunting to approach the text and retain more information.

One of the main features that have been improved since I have been working with Scholarcy is the text width. If you have dyslexia, ADHD, or autism, and you find a big wall of text – it becomes inaccessible. However having the amount of text on the screen reduced means that you can see the width of the text, and you do not have to turn your head to read it. One of the major problems for dyslexic readers is going from one end of the sentence to the start of the next line, and not skipping some reading.

Essentially, what I am trying to do is to produce new user-guides and FAQs, to make it easy for any reader to pick up Scholarcy and slot it seamlessly into their existing workflow, rather than having to go through a lot of effort to just start using it. Like most software, users may not engage with it out of habit. That is why having the browser extension is so beneficial because every time you find an interesting or useful article online, you can get the highlights and the main gist of the article just by creating a Flashcard and then you can save that straight to your Scholarcy Library so you’re keeping track of everything.  Having the browser extension means that users can search Google Scholar or PubMed, or any other article discovery service and screen texts in a more systematic, distraction-free and efficient way using the Scholarcy Flashcard .

JMR: Based on the feedback you've received from users with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other learning difficulties, what specific features or tools has Scholarcy introduced or modified to better accommodate their learning processes?

OB: One of the features users with learning difficulties can benefit from is adjusting how much information they get. You can choose between the default view, which has all the flashcard sections, or you can set it just to show you a few key sections such as the Highlights and Comparative Analysis so that you’re not overloaded within formation from the get go. You can also close sections down to ignore them. To people that struggle with information overload, being able to choose what they see in a flashcard, or how many flashcards they see on screen can make a big difference. I’ve got mine set to 25 per page because that’s the right amount for me. If you wanted to go up to 100 for example, you can have a long list, but you also can reduce that number down to 5. For some users, less is more.

Scholarcy users can read in different formats. You do not have to read all of the information you find in the flashcards in Scholarcy. One example of this is having the ability to export your research into a Word document. Here you can change the Font. Perhaps, if you are a dyslexic user, you want to increase the size of the text, or you have a screen reader, or you want to add some highlights.

Some users may want to use the PowerPoint option, where you can convert each section of the Flashcard to a set of slides. Viewing the content in PowerPoint means there is no distraction. You do not have your email notifications, no online shopping, and no extra internet tabs open. It is just the flashcard, one section at a time. Zero distractions.

JMR: Could you share a few success stories or notable improvements in information processing or learning outcomes you've observed among users since implementing these strategies?

OB: I have one example that I'm particularly proud of and it is somebody that I taught in the first six months of being an Assistive Technology Trainer. The student has emailed me on several occasions, to let me know that they won an award for having the highest coursework marks in a year. At the beginning of university, they were struggling to adapt to the course and were given assistive technology. It was my job to show them how to approach different tasks with the assistive technology kit.

After eight sessions together, the student got into the groove of using the assistive technology and was more confident in classes.

A couple of months ago, I was sent a LinkedIn message. My student received a first and they were chuffed.

I am a big advocate for people working in the way that suits them. When it comes to learning one size doesn’t fit all.

JMR: In what ways does Scholarcy use principles of universal design to ensure its tools are not only accessible for users with specific educational needs but also enhance the learning experience for all users?

OB: The flashcards have been designed so that there is no barrier to entry. The user will always know where the information is going to be and the summaries and sections are presented in a way that makes it easy to get a good overview of a complex subject in less time.

The user knows where to find the highlights, they are always in the same spot. There is uniformity. No matter what flashcard you are looking at, whatever article you are summarising, you will find all of the information in the same location. There is no emotional labour, and the burden of hunting for information has been reduced significantly.

Users can look for the comparative analysis and if the article does not make comparisons, then that tells the reader that the writer has not looked at the wide field of research.

If an academic article does not generate a comparative analysis section in the Flashcard, that can tell the user as much, perhaps more, than having a comparative analysis section would tell you, especially in terms of how reliable it is. Having the predictability of knowing exactly where the information you need is going to be in Scholarcy means you no longer have to spend so much effort on decrypting complex texts.

JMR: What advice would you give yourself if you could start all over again as a PhD student today?

OB: I think I would embrace proper downtime. I was so homed in on making everything as efficient as possible. I would be too focused on what the next bit of work would be for my PhD.

Now I know that when I take time off my work, I come back refreshed, invigorated, motivated, and better at my job. Everyone gets to a point when they burn out. But it is all a learning process.  

Through his work, Oliver has significantly contributed to making scholarly reading more manageable and inclusive, particularly for users with learning difficulties.

His experiences as an Autism Mentor and Assistive Technology Trainer have deeply informed the development of Scholarcy, leading to innovations that cater to a diverse audience.

Oliver's story underscores the importance of adaptable learning tools in academic success and the positive impact of incorporating user feedback into software development. His advice on embracing downtime serves as a valuable reminder of the importance of balance in the pursuit of a PhD and in the workplace.


Dai, C. et al. (2021) ‘Literary runaway: Increasingly more references cited per academic research article from 1980 to 2019’, PLoS ONE,16(8), p. e0255849. Available at:


Hubbard, K.E. and Dunbar, S.D. (2017) ‘Perceptions of scientific research literature and strategies for reading papers depend on academic career stage’, PLoS ONE, 12(12), p. e0189753. Available at: