Scholar Scam: Phishing Artists Prey On Academics

Like all of us, academics waste a good part of their day dealing with spam emails. But they are being preyed on by bad actors who offer them an unusual product: a chance to publish.

It’s publish or perish in the world of higher education, but competition is severe in legitimate scholarly journals, so a crop of “non-bona-fide” titles has sprung up. And these predators use predictable means for recruiting desperate, would-be authors.

“One way to capture some of the expanding market is to use unsolicited emails, referred to as spam emails, to attract customers,” Jaime A. Teixeira da SilvaAceil Al-Khatib and Panagiotis Tsigaris write in in Scientometrics.

”This method has always been a questionable business practice that imposes costs.”



You’d think that people with advanced education would be smarter than to fall for a phishing scam like that. But younger people — early career researchers (ECRs) — are especially prone to it.

These digital native ECRs “are more likely to be flattered than annoyed by these invitations and that they perceive email invitations as a legitimate tool to reach out for career development or advice,” the study notes.

But this study seems more concerned with the impact on a scholar’s time than on the financial hit to the victim.

So here’s the overall cost of even scanning and erasing these fraudulent emails. Assuming an average hourly wage of $US 50 per hour for scholars, a spam volume of 4.5 emails per day and review time of five seconds per piece, the cost per head is $100 per academic per year. And this rises to $144 if the price of anti-spam technology is factored in.

The aggregate cost is $1.1 billion per year when spread among 7.8 million full-time researchers across the globe.

What’s more, the cost rises to US$ 2.6 billion per year when all spam emails are included.

Rogue journals flatter their intended victims into spending. But publishing something in one of these sometimes blacklisted rags is career suicide. As the study says, 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.” That is particularly true when a would-be author is revealing scientific research. 

Moreover, these phishing emails could spread malware or cause other business harms to an educational institution.

So how does this work? Much like other forms of spam. You can spot these academic phonies if:

- There is no unsubscribe option

- The Publisher’s address is concealed or fake

- They invite the potential author to become an editorial board member

- They request submissions within an unrealistically short time frame

- They have grammatical errors

- They contain potentially fake identities in signatories or senders

- Use misleading metrics or false claims

- Are overly exuberant

-One problem is that even legitimate publishers sometimes use email to recruit authors. Meanwhile, we have one piece of advice for scholars or any writer who can’t find a publisher -- self-publish. 

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