Academic spam…

Hindawi, Hikari, Pushpa, Science Research Publishing, Global Journals, CSCanada, Ascent Journals, Pioneer Scientific, Bentham Books …, and on it goes. A flood of spam hitting my mailbox regularly and with annoying persistence. All of it from a bunch of self-described “journals” promising strict peer review, unusually swift publication decisions and all the benefits of open access.

Digging a bit deeper, I usually discover that all these benefits come at a price – an “author pays” charge that is either a fixed fee or a “per-page” charge that would usually end up in the $250-$750 range for a normal paper.

Some, perhaps most, of these “journals” are clearly just scams – basically just low quality websites willing to put absolutely anything online and just collect the money. The Antarctica Journal of Mathematics is perhaps the absolute bottom of the barrel with its “straight from 1996 and just learned how to use an animated GIF for background” website.

Most of these journals sell themselves based on some lofty statement about the benefits of open access and their dedication to the research community, usually written in somewhat broken English. One bunch says that they are “… an institution with a distinction having a mission to empower the high level academic activities by utilizing every available opportunity. With a vast majority of skilled professionals it has molded itself in a way that fast dissemination cannot affect the quality of work.” Huh? What does that mean?

Apart from the incessant spamming and crappy websites, the main reason I dislike these “journals” is the pay-to-publish model that creates an inevitable and direct conflict of interest. A “traditional” journal, with all its faults (as evidenced by the Elsevier boycott and subsequent events) at least has a reasonable separation between the author and the publisher. Yes, the journal must publish enough papers to break even or make a profit, and that will set their overall standard, but there is no systematic direct incentive in favour of accepting individual papers. In fact, to reduce the backlogs that many of these journals have, referees are often urged to apply high standards and evaluate the paper for significance and interest, rather than merely correctness and newness.

On the other hand, an online-only journal, run from a PO Box and a website, by people with unknown credentials, has a clear incentive to accept as many papers as they can. With almost zero cost of publication – essentially just putting a PDF online – each accepted paper is an additional $400 profit. As a journal editor, I know that it is essentially impossible to guarantee a 1 to 2-month turnaround, because a referee can’t be expected to drop everything and work for free instantly. It’s hard enough finding referees willing to fit it in to their own schedule, let alone do it on-the-spot. So even if the journal is genuinely trying to get papers refereed, there must be considerable temptation to cut corners.

With the best will in the world, a system where all the pressures lead in one direction cannot resist them for ever. And of course with suitable software it’s essentially no more work to run 5 or 10 or 200 “journals” than one, so the journal names can be as specialised as desired, the papers as numerous as required and the dollars pouring in as fast as they can.

Other than the obvious reasons applying to the ones at the very bottom of the food chain, I don’t really understand why people – sometimes people with reasonable research reputations – choose to publish in these outlets (at least the mathematical ones – I don’t know about other disciplines). My library is already paying for the traditional journals, so why pay twice? I cover the “open access” side of it by making sure that everything I write goes on arxiv so anyone interested can read it. Paying $400+ (individually) for something that we (collectively) have already paid for doesn’t seem like a great plan.  Of course, if a university counts papers, but doesn’t read them, then all bets are off – a modest $2000 investment could get you 5 papers a year with almost no effort! But surely no sensible university would ever do that. Would they?

This all makes me quite ambivalent about one side-effect of the Elsevier stoush, which is the foundation of a couple of “open-access” journals that are going to be underwritten, at least initially, by CUP, but then revert (presumably unless sponsorship can be found) to an even more expensive author-pays model! Of course, I have no doubt about the integrity or quality of these two particular journals, nor that the page charges are out-of-proportion to the actual costs incurred by CUP, but I fear that it legitimises what, to me, is a fundamentally flawed model of academic publishing.

So I’ll make my own little personal boycott statement. I didn’t join the Elsevier boycott, not because I think they are great, but simply because I wanted to see a realistic and scalable model for the future first (everyone submit everything to Electronic Journal of Combinatorics is neither!). But here’s my pledge:

I will not publish in, referee for, or join the editorial board of any journal that requires direct payment from authors (or their universities/grants) as a prerequisite for the publication of a specific paper.

So there!


11 thoughts on “Academic spam…

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  1. If I were a hardcore conspiracy theorist, I’d theorize that Elsevier and Springer were secretly behind such outfits as the Antarctic Journal of Mathematics: intentionally making them so crappy and sleazy that open-access is discredited forever. And if that were true, then they’ve done an excellent job! But of course, that is probably not true, however convenient it is for the big publishers– rather just another case of individual dudes worsening the world to squeeze out a few bucks. Infuriating.

    Please don’t lump all open-access in with these clowns. There’s no need for me to tell you about journals like the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, the Journal of Integer Sequences, etc. etc. which are truly open-access, with neither subscription fees nor author fees. The idealist in me hopes that *this* is the way of the future.

    1. Open-access is fine. Pay-to-publish is bad. We need a group funding model, where universities (via their libraries) all contribute annually to a non-profit organisation that runs journals similar to EJC etc, but perhaps with some of the additional services currently supplied by the commercial publishers.

  2. The one that really annoys me at the moment is CSCanada. I’m getting an email almost every day from these guys. I think we need to do something stronger than a boycott. Some respected mathematicians in our community are on editorial boards for CSCanada, and we should persuade these people to think carefully about what they are doing.

  3. I just got asked to referee a paper for CSCanada, allotted time: 3 weeks. And it was in Word, but afterwards I discovered they actually ASK for papers to be written in Word!
    My answer: “I disapprove the policies of your journal, and moreover no mathematical journal asking for papers in MSWord will ever be taken seriously. Please do not ask me again to referee any paper.”

    1. Of course this means that CSCanada is at least trying to find referees… what was the mathematics in the paper like? How many referees would be able to respond in three weeks!

    1. In which case, a large percentage of a journal’s costs would be on papers that are not accepted. This would suggest a submission charge instead of a publication charge.

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