Academic Spam [UPDATED]

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Handling the daily flood of emails is painful enough. But within this flood there is a particular subset that I have over the years found increasingly more annoying – for lack of a better term, I’ll call it academic spam. I now get several such messages weekly, sometimes even daily. It comes in a number of varieties, with different degrees of sophistication in how the emails are drafted and presented. First you have the invitations to conferences/events of absurdly general scope, or at least lack of relevance to my own field, i.e. there is actually no good reason to invite me (e.g. conference on Issues in Higher Education, Language, Literature and Linguistics, Social Science and Managment, etc.). Most of these conferences involve the open access publication of the submitted papers, but from what I gather little or nothing by way of peer review or editorial standards. Then there are the invitations to submit papers to say a Journal of X, where the X again normally has little bearing on my field, and where I’ve rarely if ever heard of the journal or of the people (supposedly) sitting on their boards etc.

Having done some pain-induced research on this, I gather that the business model of these spammers, most of whom seem to operate from India, China, and Eastern Europe, is relatively simple. They collect emails, names, affiliations etc by trawling existing scholarly papers, e.g. those posted on SSRN, then sending out copy/pasted invitations (the better ones are sometimes more personalized). They charge fees for their conferences (essentially you pay to be a panelist and that’s that, no questions asked) and for the open access publications (note the perils of the recent mainstreaming of the open access ‘gold option’ in the UK). They do not operate a scam strictly speaking – there probably is a conference, and there is a publication. It’s just that they have zero scientific merit. One can after all hardly complain of being cheated after paying their fees, as the nature of the enterprise is obvious.

The whole thing indeed reminds me of those ‘scams’ where you get an email from some company/institution informing you that you’ve been nominated for the tremendous honour of being included in a Who’s Who of very influential/capable/smart people or whatever, and asking you whether you’re happy to be included. If you say yes, then they ask you for a modest processing fee of say a 100 pounds – or worse they may collect your credit card data and personal information and do what they will with it. And they may even publish the book itself, so you wouldn’t have any real cause to complain – and of course y0u may well buy a copy. Vanity publishing at its best.

This is essentially a publishing model which doesn’t exist to serve the needs of the (academic) audience, but to sell a product to the author (and at that one of dubious value). What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that there are enough sheep to feed the wolves, as it were. These people must be getting some kind of positive response rate (i.e. one above zero, and enough above it for the whole venture to be profitable, because if this wasn’t profitable it wouldn’t be done). In other words, there clearly are academics (who? where? why?) prepared to give them money so that they could speak at these conferences and publish their papers. My impression is that some fields are more affected than others (e.g. computer science more than law) but I really wonder at what drives this process from the author standpoint, be it sheer cluelessness, the publish or perish culture or something else entirely.

Thoughts and comments from readers on this are particularly welcome. Some helpful links are below:

UPDATE: Jacob Cogan points me to this excellent article in the New York Times on the topic; here’s a sample:

Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.

“It’s almost like the word is out,” he said. “This is easy money, very little work, a low barrier start-up.”

Journals on what has become known as “Beall’s list” generally do not post the fees they charge on their Web sites and may not even inform authors of them until after an article is submitted. They barrage academics with e-mail invitations to submit articles and to be on editorial boards.

One publisher on Beall’s list, Avens Publishing Group, even sweetened the pot for those who agreed to be on the editorial board of The Journal of Clinical Trails & Patenting, offering 20 percent of its revenues to each editor.

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Joost says

October 11, 2013

I think it's quite appropriate to call the phenomenon you describe as, strictly speaking, academic SCAM in order to differentiate it from what we already experience even within prestigeous academic journals: i.e. the real academic SPAM. There's no denying that even in the so-called 'serious' circles, there's too much being published and too little being read; too much superfluous stuff being published just for the sake of it, out of vanity and the certainty that, for the purposes of career advancement, more weigh will be given to a CV full of mediocre pieces (the mediocrity of which no one knows because no one reads) than to a realistic CV which only includes some few meaningful contributions (which, by definition, cannot be too many). That the academic SCAM you referred to is seen as a threat to academia is explained by the fact that academic SPAM looks good on CVs. To my mind, the latter, not the former, is the real threat to academia.

Patrick S. O'Donnell says

October 11, 2013

It's reassuring to learn someone like Marko receives this academic spam (or 'scam'), as I thought it was my lowly status as an adjunct instructor at a community college that was decisive in my receipt of such material, the thought being that I could not resist the temptation to enhance my name prestige and academic standing (to puff up my CV) with such nonsense. (It so happens that I'm perfectly content being an adjunct instructor at a community college in the states, although I could do with one or two more classes.)

RJ says

October 11, 2013

Dear Joost, many thanks for your post. You've described the problem of contemporary scholarship on international law (and certainly many other fields) just perfectly. Countless articles, matched only by inflationary footnotes (the more the better - often, I feel like articles are only being included because of their title, PERHAPS the author has bothered to read the abstract) and, as you state it - more is being written than actually READ. Yet, many of the pieces produced on a daily basis are not worth reading anyhow. Sometimes, they are so specialized/focussed that there is nothing to gain from reading.