Mark Clemons has published over 250 papers over the past two-plus decades, nearly all of them involving breast cancer. So imagine his surprise when Clemons, a medical oncologist at the University of Ottawa, Canada, received a flattering email inviting him to submit his work to, of all places, a journal focusing on yoga research.
Suspecting a fraudulent pitch, Clemons consigned the message to the trash. But another quickly followed to take its place. On any given day, Clemons receives between 40 and 50 invitations from suspect journals and conferences — so many, in fact, that Clemons was motivated to conduct and publish two separate systematic studies of the problem. That effort cost him $4,000, the price of a summer student stipend.
The practice of publishing their email addresses on journal articles and university web sites makes research academics ready targets for email spammers. Spam, Clemons insists, is not merely a nuisance but a time-sink. Mark Gerstein, a professor of biomedical informatics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, estimates that maybe a quarter of the 200-or-so messages he receives in a day are important. “I spend many, many, many hours a week, days a week probably, going through my correspondence,” he says.
Spam filters will catch the most egregious messages — missives from Nigerian princes and dodgy pharmaceuticals salesmen, for instance. But emails from predatory journals and conferences look real enough to make it into the inbox itself, where only a watchful eye can determine their authenticity. In his zeal to delete these messages, Clemons says, ‘real’ messages inevitably get lost in the shuffle, a form of electronic collateral damage.
As described in a 2013 Nature news feature, predatory publishers exploit the open-access publishing model, in which fees are charged for editorial and publishing services in order to make the work freely available, “by charging the fee without providing all the expected publishing services.” (Predatory conferences do likewise to collect meeting participation fees.) “These publishers, [University of Colorado in Denver librarian Jeffrey] Beall says, typically display ‘an intention to deceive authors and readers, and a lack of transparency in their operations and processes’.”
Such spam presents a particular danger to early-career researchers, says Stuart Flint, senior research fellow in public health and obesity at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, UK. These researchers are under pressure to publish and present their findings at conferences, and may be taken in by the promise of an easy publication or platform presentation.
That can be embarrassing, Flint says. But it also can be expensive. As detailed in one of Clemons’ analyses, the spam journals that requested his attention averaged nearly $1,000 per article, and yet rarely divulged these fees in their emailed invitations.
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets or tools researchers can use to avoid these messages. But clever email strategies can help.
Gerstein, for instance, uses a multi-tiered approach to triage his correspondence, relying on Gmail filters, labels, and artificial intelligence. Gerstein has a whitelist — a list of ‘approved’ email addresses. Messages from those addresses are automatically routed to his inbox, where they receive the highest priority. New senders can get on that list by placing a special keyword (available on his web site) in the subject line of their message — which is how I was able to contact him.
Below that top tier are departmental messages, messages from mailing lists, and the like. At the very bottom is the obvious spam, the stuff that gets picked up by Google’s spam-detection algorithms. And in the middle is what Gerstein calls ‘almost-spam’ — messages from predatory journals and conferences, spam invitations to join editorial boards, and even spam calendar invites, which automatically add themselves to his calendar and clog up his schedule.
Gerstein advises researchers to use multiple email addresses in dealing with journals, vendors, and the like. Then, by funneling those messages to a single inbox, one can sort the messages by account and prioritize them accordingly.
Gmail is particularly useful for this purpose, Gerstein notes. Suppose you have the address ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. Google allows users to modify their addresses by placing a plus sign and additional text between the username and the at-symbol — for instance, ‘email@example.com’ and ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. These messages all go to the original address, but users can sort their messages based on the specific address used.
“You can use that quite powerfully to create unique addresses for all sorts of things, and to filter your email on the basis of that,” Gerstein says.
Still, Gerstein admits, spam inevitably falls through the cracks. How to spot it?
First, look at the overall content. Spam messages tend to feature poor grammar, odd or variable fonts, and excessive flattery.
“If anybody says you are fantastic, or you are esteemed, or there’s use of hyperbole, delete it,” says Clemons. “Because no reputable journal or university, society, whatever is going to call you any of these hyperbolic greetings.”
Another red flag: unrealistic timelines or guarantees. One message gave Clemons less than one month to submit an abstract to a meeting, at which he was guaranteed — in advance — a presentation. “There’s no scientific meeting that guarantees anybody a presentation for a fee. It also offered me a place on the editorial board of that conference. These things don’t happen,” he says.
Look also for a lack of detail in a conference invitation, advises David Broom, who studies exercise science at Sheffield Hallam University in Sheffield, UK. While legitimate conference invitations may include a draft program of content and speakers, predatory conferences rarely do. “Predatory conferences are very much, ‘We have just got a selection of world-renowned speakers who are traveling across the globe to be at this conference, therefore it is an absolute must that you attend this conference’. But they tend to have literally no substance,” Broom says.
Spam invitations sometimes contain references to previously published papers, even if that work has nothing to do with the journal or conference in the message. In one memorable case, says Clemons, a predatory journal sent him an invitation based on his earlier research … on spam.
“The irony of a computer sending me an email about work that I have done against these journals, is not lost on me,” he says.
Consider also the email sender, says Kelly Cobey, a publications officer and ‘journalologist‘ at The Ottawa Hospital in Canada. “Within academia it’s quite rare to ever be invited to submit an article at a journal,” Cobey says. When such an overture is made, it’s likely you either know the editor personally, or they will detail why they are reaching out to you in particular. “The idea that dozens of people or journals would seek a paper from you, this is rare in a series of years much less a single day.”
Finally, cross-check the journal title against lists of reputable sources, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals, Cobey advises. “If I received an invite from a journal that wasn’t in the Directory of Open Access Journals but claimed to be open-access, to me, that would be a red flag that this is something that I could avoid.”
Spam is a significant enough issue that several studies have been published describing their content, and some are listed below. Cobey suggests that researchers use these analyses to hone their university spam filters. It won’t stop much, she admits, but every little bit helps.
What researchers absolutely should not do, she and others insist, is to give up on email, or stop including their email addresses in journal articles and on their web sites. Email, they note, is how most researchers and journal editors — not to mention, the broader public — communicate.
“You risk reducing the likelihood of actually communicating with people and organizations that you are inevitably trying to benefit,” says Flint.
Instead, Cobey says, think critically, and trust your instincts. “If a researcher is ever hesitant about a journal, they probably shouldn’t be submitting there,” she says.
Jeffrey Perkel is Technology Editor, Nature
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