Dealing with spam emails ‘costs academia more than peer review’

Study suggests that ‘predatory’ spam targeted specifically at scholars costs universities $1.1 billion annually

January 8, 2020
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Spam emails cost global academia ‘at least $1.1 billion annually’

The global cost to researchers of dealing with spam emails is likely to be higher than the estimated value put on the time academics spend peer-reviewing papers, a study suggests.

Spam emails that specifically target academics – such as those from “predatory” journals and publishers – are alone likely to cost the academic community $1.1 billion (£850 million), according to the research.

To estimate the cost of dealing with spam emails, researchers took an average figure for the number of messages targeted at academics each day based on data gathered by about a dozen separate studies that have looked at the problem.

This produced a “conservative” estimate that academics receive four or five targeted spam emails a day, including unsolicited messages seeking submissions to predatory journals and conferences.

Assuming that academics spend five seconds reviewing each message, the researchers suggest that the time cost of dealing with spam is more than $100 a year per researcher, based on an estimated average hourly salary of $50. This figure rises to $144 a year if the cost of using anti-spam technology in email systems is included.

Using United Nations figures on the number of researchers worldwide, they suggest that this means the annual cost to the academic community of spam targeted at scholars could amount to $1.1 billion.

Such an estimate does not include the financial cost to academics who actually follow up spam messages and end up paying money to predatory open access journals, or other costs such as falling for phishing scams that attempt to defraud recipients.

However, the authors do say that when all spam emails are considered – including those that are not exclusively targeted at academics – the overall cost to academia rises to about $2.6 billion a year.

“This cost is higher than the global cost of the time academics devote to peer review,” they add, based on figures from a 2008 study that suggested it cost the academic community about £1.9 billion to conduct peer review.

Co-author Panagiotis Tsigaris, professor of economics at Thompson Rivers University in Canada, said that the researchers found it “surprising” that the amount of time wasted by spam – and the associated cost – was so high.

He added that although “there is likely no effective anti-spam strategy” that could completely solve the problem, “educating academics as to what is legitimate from spam email may be a strong first defence”.

Other potential solutions offered by the paper, published in Scientometrics, include making it more costly to send spam emails by finding a way to increase the price of mass emailing, increasing the penalties for academics that publish in predatory journals, changing the incentives around scholarly publication and improving email filtering technology.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The annual price of spam: $1bn

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