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.