Academic Vanity Press: Who Gets Scammed?

Jan 14, 2013 8:00am

I’m not a regular denizen of the ivory halls of academia, but I’ve recently become aware of a journal paper submission scam for which even a quasi-academic is apparently a suitable target. At any rate, I recently received a minor blizzard of emails offering me the opportunity to submit a paper to one of several dozen open access, peer-reviewed online journals, and to join them as an editorial board member or reviewer.

People do ask me to write, edit or review for them from time to time, but they’re usually rather more precise about which site or publication they want me to contribute to. They don’t let me choose from a variety of publications in disciplines of which I have no experience whatever. Most of them don’t expect to pay me for my efforts, but that’s fine: people who write blogs and papers that are published by a security company usually also write on behalf of the same company for reputable third parties like the Anti-Phishing Working Group, local press, specialist security magazines, and so on. The third party gets a wider spread of expertise than if it only used in-house staff, especially if the writer is already established; the security company and the author get a wider audience and are seen as a force in the knowledge-sharing research community, not just a marketing operation.

However, in this case it was money that was wanted, not my presumed expertise or reputation. The spammer doesn’t seem to know what my field of expertise actually is. And it turns out that if you want to be an editor or reviewer, you first have to submit a paper.  The cost of processing the article (copyedit, proofreading, and publication on acceptance) is up to $500 (but with a very substantial discount if I submit before January). It turns out that some similar organizations charge 3-4 times that much, though again they often offer impressive discounts. 

Welcome to the seamier side of Open Access. Not that OA is in itself fraudulent. In principle, it provides unrestricted access to scholarly, peer-reviewed journal articles. Instead of the reader paying for access (for example, by paying a yearly subscription fee or for individual articles), the business model is largely reliant on the cost of publishing being borne by the author. It’s actually quite a complex and varied model, but for many academics and academic departments, publications constitute an essential performance metric, a numbers game that boosts their claim to tenure and gives them an advantage in the job market. Research information is both a core product and a marketing asset, so it can work very well.

It may come as no surprise that there are journals whose review process is less rigorous than you’d expect, but what may be more surprising is how many Open Access journals have little or no content, or cheerfully include articles from disciplines different to the one indicated by the journal title, or include names on editorial and review boards of people who have never agreed to participate, or whose credentials are seriously misrepresented. I guess it’s not a scam if you get what you want out of it: if buying your bibliography by the yard the way some people buy books for their study pads your resume, you may consider it worth the money. But if you obtain and maintain your position by buying credibility at the expense of those who earn theirs, isn’t an academic employer being cheated, and the academic community as a whole being short-changed?