Spam emails difficult to suppress, finds study

Chances are you’ll get at least a bit of ‘spam dressed as lamb’ this Christmas

December 22, 2016
Person dressed as wolf and carrying lamb
Source: Alamy
Be wary: emails with enticing subject lines were dubbed ‘spam dressed as lamb’

If you are brave enough to take time away from your email inbox over the holidays, you are likely to log on in January to a barrage of emails inviting you to submit your latest research paper to a dodgy journal or to speak at a questionable conference.

But exactly how much spam do academics get?

About 312 emails a month, or 2.1 per day, according to new research.

Annoyingly, the investigation, which examined the inboxes of five academics, found that unsubscribing from spam mailing lists reduces the flow of emails for only about a month.

Unsolicited and unwanted email invitations to present at or attend conferences, and to write for or edit journals are all too common in academia. But little work has been done to get a handle on how much spam academics receive.

So Andrew Grey, an associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Auckland, launched the Academic Spam Study to look at the amount, relevance, content and suppressibility of academic spam emails.

In what the article calls a “deftly ironic twist”, Professor Grey invited five collaborators to take part in the study via an email, which described each recipient as an eminent professor, included five or more exclamation marks and did not give them the option to unsubscribe.

“Inclusion criteria were personal acquaintance with the first author, a sense of humour, a relentless wish to conduct leading edge research, desperation for academic outputs, and an inability to say ‘no’,” the authors write in the British Medical Journal.

The collaborators collected the spam emails that they received during two periods. The first was between February and April 2014, and the second – from June 2014 to April 2015 – after they unsubscribed from the emailing lists of the organisations that had sent them spam in May 2014.

During the first phase of collection, each academic received an average of 312 spam invitations per calendar month – more than 80 times the number of genuine invitations. After unsubscribing, the number of spam invitations fell to 190 each month, but by April 2015 it had bounced back to 253 a month.

The authors describe the various types of spam they received. Categories include “spam dressed as lamb”, emails with eye-catching subject lines; “tasty spam”, enthusiastic emails that contained up to six exclamation marks; “stir fried spam”, which made no sense; and “premium spam”, which was too good to ignore.

They found that 16 per cent of the spam emails were duplicates and 83 per cent were of little or no relevance to the receiver.

Professor Grey and colleagues conclude: “Academic spam is common, repetitive, often irrelevant, and difficult to avoid or prevent.”

Kirsten Bell, honorary associate in the department of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, said that although the BMJ article was funny, the topic warrants more serious examination.

“There’s no question that the rise of this phenomenon is connected with the growing emphasis on academic output among university administrations – where tenure and promotion are increasingly based on systems that attempt to quantify quality,” she said.

Tom Crick, professor of computer science and public policy at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said that in the majority of cases, academic spam promotes “predatory publishers and counterfeit conferences”, which is worrying.

“The sophistication of some of these emails is making it harder to develop heuristics to automatically filter [them],” he said.

holly.else@tesglobal.com

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Print headline: Study finds it’s hard to put a lid on spam emails

Reader's comments (1)

Agree with the comments above. I think people are so busy trying to fix and prevent spamming actions, especially as Spam always seems to be developing, that we forget to find and punish the spammers. If people knew that if they posted spam there would be major repercussions instead of just the occasional user blocking them, then i think a lot less people would spam. i was so fed up of being spammed that i started my own mini research project and made an infographic on stastics related to spam and how we can go about changing it- https://www.lucidica.com/blog/internet-security/a-brief-guide-to-spam/. Inside are tips on how to avoid it and report it- lets hope that this may be the end of spam.

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