Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Spam me once, shame on you. (Academic) spam me 3000 times…?

with 3 comments

Every year, academics get thousands of spam emails inviting them to submit manuscripts or attend conferences — but don’t bother asking to “unsubscribe” for Christmas.

Spoiler alert, for those of you planning to read the rest of this post: It doesn’t make much of a difference.

That’s according to the conclusions of a study published in one of our favorite issues of the BMJ  — the Christmas issue. After a group of five self-described “intrepid academics” tried to unsubscribe from the 300+ spam invitations they received on average each month, the volume decreased by only 19% after one year.

Not surprisingly, many emails — approximately 1 in 6 — were duplicates (aka “reheated spam”), and the vast majority (83%) had little relevance to the researchers’ interests.

Study author Andrew Grey at the University of Auckland told us that since it’s the BMJ Christmas issue, they wanted to have a bit of fun. But it’s not an all-together light topic, he noted:

Of course, academic spam is quite a serious issue that encompasses what has been termed ‘predatory publishing’ and what might be termed ‘predatory conferences’. Its annoying and irritating. However, there are elements to it that are so silly they are funny.

Grey added:

Examples include the flattering and obsequious language used to address recipients, the very frequent absence of any relevance whatsoever to the recipient’s academic work, and the hyperbolic claims of importance of the proposed conference or journal article. It was a great deal of fun to extract examples of colourful language from our sample of spam, to include in the paper. A personal favourite was the sentence “We are creating a kind of mind storming forum to create a new therapeutic advances” in an invitation to speak at a conference, especially as most academic meetings are a very long way from being ‘mind storming’.

He said the idea came from conversations with fellow academics about the annoyance of spam emails.

Somehow that blossomed into what became a moderately sizeable project.

Indeed, the authors had a little bit of fun with the results:

The Academic Spam Study investigators are mid-career, modestly productive, and conduct research across several disciplines (table 1). On the basis of salutations contained in emails received during the study period, each investigator is highly esteemed. Modesty precludes a systematic description of the height of the esteem but according to these emails each investigator has “made important contributions,” is a “distinguished expert,” and has “great expertise,” sometimes in disciplines surprisingly remote from the primary academic focus.

They flagged some of their favorite subject lines:

We learnt that good times happen at oral health conferences (“Learn and Have Fun at the International Conference on Orthognathic Surgery and Orthodontics”). We were tempted by “Cracking the Mysterious Psychiatric Disorders at Euro Psychiatry 2015,” and to “Unleash (y)our research ideas at Orthopedics and Rheumatology 2014.” We were interested in “Biologically signifying the clinical molecule,” and extremely interested in “Special Issue on Wine Health”—sadly, no offers to recruit mid-career academics to studies of wine were apparent.

Some publishers featured more prominently in the experiment:

One publisher, OMICS Group, did not provide an option to unsubscribe and spam email remained substantial in subsequent months. Jacobs Publishers and Open Access Publications sent few spam messages in 2014 but each was a prominent source in April 2015. Eighteen sources of journal related spam were noted in April 2015 that had not featured in April 2014.

Three spam sources sent more than 10 conference invitations in April 2014. Two, BIT Life Sciences and OMICS Group, did not offer unsubscription and remained prominent sources of spam related to conferences a year later.

Of note: OMICS is currently being sued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, alleging it has deceived readers about reviewing practices, publication fees, and the nature of its editorial boards.

Of course, the authors conclude their paper “We read spam a lot: prospective cohort study of unsolicited and unwanted academic invitations” with a spam-like message of their own in their pitch for future research, taking the lessons learned from their findings:

Nobel and prestigious colleagues,

We are enthralled by prospect of novel research focus of academic spam so we make a proposition to improve enlightenment of evidence. We wish greatly to start journal and convene scientific meeting that focus on academic spam, so illustrious colleagues can form interdisciplinary web of scientific rigour to advance knowledge. Maybe we will christen soon Journal of Advances in Interdisciplinary Academic Spam and launch with alacrity the First Annual International Symposium on Academic Spam (Spam-2017). Once we identify publisher and conference organiser we will email academics to join this exciting novel venture! Honourable colleagues, stay tuned!!!!!!

There may be need for further research, Grey noted:

Anecdotally, we think we receive more spam invitations now than previously. Perhaps this paper will inspire others to make academic spam a research focus?

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Written by Alison McCook

December 14th, 2016 at 6:30 pm

Posted in bmj,bmj,new zealand

Comments
  • Marco December 15, 2016 at 2:39 am

    Maybe a link to the paper itself would have been appropriate. It’s here: http://www.bmj.com/content/355/bmj.i5383

  • Anonymous December 15, 2016 at 10:58 am

    A good way to deal with some of the more persistent conference organisers is to respond asking for all conference + accommodation fees to be waived and business-class air travel to be provided.

    Of course, the best way to deal with it is not respond at all, and get working on your spam filter.

  • DWalker December 16, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Here’s my favorite quote from the paper itself, taken from one invite:

    “We aim to enlighten the lamp of information across the sphere especially in the areas of science and technologies”

    Enlighten the lamp of information? Wow.

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