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Spam emails in academia: issues and costs

Abstract

Academic research output is increasing at a very fast growth rate per year. Given this expansion, new publishers will enter the market or existing publishers will introduce new journals to capture the rapidly expanding intellectual contributions in scholarly publishing. It is thus natural that when competing factions, new and pre-existing publishers, vie to capture this expansion that inter-journal and inter-publisher competition arises. This competitive environment may induce unhealthy competition with the use of inappropriate or unacceptable tactics to gain a share of the expanding market. In the recent open access era, questionable review, pricing, managerial and marketing practices by journals or publishers that claim to be scholarly are broadly referred to as “predatory”. One way to capture some of the expanding market is to use unsolicited emails, referred to as spam emails, to attract customers. This method has always been a questionable business practice that imposes costs. In this paper we address issues associated with spam emails, and our conservative estimate of the external costs of spam from publishers and journals amounts to US$ 1.1 billion per year. When all spam emails are included in the calculation, the cost rises to approximately US$ 2.6 billion per year. Academics that respond to spam emails from journals that do not conduct peer review also risk damaging their careers by publishing their intellect in such outlets. Finally, spam emails may include phishing attacks, which also result in financial losses. By making academics aware of these costs we hope measures can be taken by affected institutes to reduce the negative externality of spam emails and offer some potential solutions.

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Notes

  1. See Manley (2019) for an expanded discussion of the US Federal Trade Commission suit against OMICS Group.

  2. http://blogs.nature.com/news/2014/05/global-scientific-output-doubles-every-nine-years.html.

  3. For software available on the market, see: https://aeroleads.com/blog/list-5-email-extractor-chrome-plugin/.

  4. https://www2.cabells.com/about-blacklist.

  5. Spam also represents a way for search engines to reach the top page of results (Makkar and Kumar 2019), which could be one technique of “illegitimate” journals to rank higher on web searches than legitimate journals with similar titles.

  6. The use of spam or unsolicited and deceptive emails to attempt to gather authors would gain a relative score of − 10 (i.e., a negative penalty) when using the Predatory Score (p. 27 in Teixeira da Silva 2013a), although this aspect alone would not necessarily result in an entity (e.g., a journal or publisher) being classified as “predatory”.

  7. https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/keep-predators-out-with-a-low-spam-diet.

  8. For a detailed taxonomy of phishing methods and issues as well as future directions see Gupta et al. (2018).

  9. Gupta et al. (2018) provide a further breakdown of this category of phishing attacks.

  10. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0038-spam.

  11. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/inbox/state_anti-spam_laws.

  12. See for example: https://www.economicsonline.co.uk/Market_failures/Externalities.html.

  13. For other estimates of the cost of spams see: https://www.informationweek.com/spam-costs-billions/d/d-id/1030111.

  14. One can consider the Wilkinson et al. study as providing a sample mean of daily spam emails and we used this study to give us an estimated external cost although surveys may overstate the number of spam emails relative to direct observations as was done in the other 12 studies reported in Table 1. In the Wilkinson et al. study, 54% of those who were surveyed received 1–10 spam emails per day and another 30% stated that they had received 10–20 spam emails per day which is within the range of values observed by the other 12 studies in our sample.

  15. The 95% CI was computed by using the standard error of sample mean of daily spam emails (= 1.20) and a t critical value with 12 degrees of freedom (= 2.18). Thus, the 95% CI was (1.9, 7.1).

  16. See page 4 of the Radicati Report: https://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Email-Statistics-Report-2015-2019-Executive-Summary.pdf. Spam emails have been rising for business emails and currently are 19 on average.

  17. The RIN (2008) report (http://www.rin.ac.uk/system/files/attachments/Activites-costs-flows-report.pdf) used £40.4 as the global average hourly non-cash cost of peer review. This was based on a weighted average of UK and non-UK peer reviewers wage rates. Converting the £s at the recent exchange rate of $ 1.28 per £ (a £ that is deflated relative to the past) results in approximately US$ 50 wage rate per hour. Rao and Reiley (2012) used a world average wage rate of US$ 25 per hour to arrive at approximately US$ 14 billion each year for the time lost worldwide.

  18. We used 7.8 million full time equivalent researchers obtained from the UNESCO Science Report at https://en.unesco.org/UNESCO_SCIENCE_REPORT/FIGURES. This figure is consistent with the STM 2018 report which estimates 7 to 8 million researchers worldwide.

  19. The 95% CI for the average daily spam emails was used to get these two estimates; the values and procedure are in Table 2.

  20. The Wilkinson et al. (2019) survey study found that researchers allocated between 1 and 10 min each day evaluating spam emails which would amount to approximately 3 s and 1 min per spam email, respectively with 10 spam emails on average per day. The authors also found that the time allocation to academic spam emails was correlated with the number of peer-reviewed articles a faculty member published, having open access journal publications, as well as the total number of academic spam emails a person received and a psychological factor of regret of missing an opportunity to publish if the emails were ignored.

  21. We have most likely underestimated the external cost of spam emails to academics. A potential future extension is to attempt to estimate the full external cost to society from spam emails including unwarranted APCs paid, time and reputational damage to authors who publish in deceptive journals as well as financial and computer information losses from malware by phishing operations.

  22. The £ 1.9 figure was obtained from RIN (2008) but is also in the STM 2015 and 2018 reports.

  23. https://www.ic3.gov/media/2018/180712.aspx.

  24. Another increasingly worrisome form of spam, which is transmitted via online social networks (Almaatouq et al. 2016), is not considered in this paper. However, it would certainly be worthwhile to assess this phenomenon in academic-based social networks such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu. Spam could be assessed in such networks via perception-based sentiment analysis (Mehmood et al. 2019).

  25. See also Gupta et al. (2017) for the state of the art on fighting phishing attacks as well as future challenges.

  26. Quan et al. (2017) found that universities in China offer cash per publication in the range of US$ 30–US$ 165,000 for publications in journals indexed by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science (https://clarivate.com/products/web-of-science/). Although this incentive structure can increase researcher’s productivity, it can also result in research misconduct to earn the extra salary if the perceived extra benefits are higher than the cost associated with engaging in such an activity. Recently, the department of science and technology in India recommended that international journals (no matter what the quality) be financially rewarded more than Indian journals which can distort the allocation of publications away from high quality Indian journals to low quality international journals since the benefits are higher for the latter journals. See: https://journosdiary.com/2019/02/07/financial-reward-publishing-papers-phd/.

  27. In India, doctoral students are required to publish at least two papers prior to completion of their thesis. Completion of thesis is required to find university employment which would increase salary from earning nothing to the entry level university professor salary. This pressure to publish or perish creates a market for predatory journals and publishers who use very low cost spam emails to attract customers (Patwardhan et al. 2018).

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Correspondence to Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva, Aceil Al-Khatib or Panagiotis Tsigaris.

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Teixeira da Silva, J.A., Al-Khatib, A. & Tsigaris, P. Spam emails in academia: issues and costs. Scientometrics 122, 1171–1188 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-019-03315-5

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Keywords

  • Authors
  • Confidentiality
  • Costs
  • Ethics and morality
  • Intellect
  • Marketing
  • Misleading
  • Negative externality
  • Phishing
  • Spam emails
  • Trust