Seven ways to spot academic spam

This week I read an editorial by Becker and colleagues (2019) which warned against the dangers of “online solicited content journals”. These predatory journals use academic spam emails to elicit contributions from researchers and are fast becoming the dark shadow of the academic publishing industry. While academic publishing is notoriously lucrative, the impact of this has generally been to hold science back, rather than to promote misleading findings. High profile cases of academic misinformation have been thankfully rare, supporting continued public trust in academics. However, Becker and colleagues warn that solicited content journals threaten this. For a fee, these journals offer authors the opportunity to have their work published within weeks; a stark contrast to the months-long, soul-searchingly slow process inherent to most standard academic journals. These journals often purport to be peer-reviewed but the quality of this is highly questionable. Becker and colleagues suggest that authors could be tempted to submit to these predatory journals by the offer of a fast publishing process. They warn that circumventing peer-review risks introducing misinformation to the academic publication process.

However, the biggest problem, I believe, is confusion. These journals approach researchers as soon as they have a single academic publication, presumably lifting their email addresses from the author contact details of published papers. For a new or lay researcher, their invitations can be very confusing. Furthermore, these emails appear to be becoming more sophisticated in their approach. They are not restricted to eliciting journal submissions, either: I now receive about as many spam emails requesting my ‘gracious presence’ at various conferences. Below I offer seven tips for distinguishing academic spam from genuine invitations:

  1. Avoid all invitations that look like a mail shot. Watch out for signs that the email could have been completed with mail-merge software. If your name is back to front (Dear Johnson Judith), your co-authors are also listed, an email address is used in place of your name or a title of one your papers is pasted in its entirety, it is probably not genuine. 
  2. If the invitation requires you to follow a link, it is most likely spam. Any personal invitations to contribute a paper, chapter or conference submission will ask you to respond to the person who emailed you.
  3. Do not agree to read receipts from unknown contacts. Read receipts are usually requested when something is urgent or otherwise a priority. I have never received a genuine invitation to submit a paper, chapter or talk which requested a read receipt.
  4. Don’t be fooled by flattery. If I receive any email that begins, ‘Dear eminent professor’, I delete it. This person clearly does not know me. Spam emails are usually both overly enthusiastic (think, ‘greetings for the day!’) and overly complimentary.
  5. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If they’re offering some limited time, cut price deal on article publishing fees, what they are offering you is not worth any fee. Similarly, if the conference they’re inviting you to is in Valencia, Hawaii or Phuket, be sceptical. I’ve yet to receive an academic spam email inviting me to speak in Birmingham. 
  6. If an unknown contact asks you a stupid question, bin the email. The most sophisticated academic spam I’ve received yet asked me for the contact details of one of my high-profile collaborators. Although I was confused (she’s the first hit on google if you type in her name), I obliged with a response. Having enticed me into a conversation, the spammer then replied saying that my collaborator was hard to get hold of, but they’d be delighted if I could contribute to their journal.
  7. Do your own research on the spammer. Look up the journal you have been contacted about: does its website resemble those of bona fide journals? Who else has published in it? Which databases is it indexed with? Conferences can be even harder to figure out. However, most genuine academic conferences will be aligned with a university, professional organisation or healthcare organisation. In the absence of this, you can look up the conference’s history and their previous and present speakers. After all – the most important thing about any conference is the opportunity to meet with other researchers and professionals in your area.