UUK ‘should sue predatory publishers over tsunami of spam’

Ex-research council boss Douglas Kell says sector body should take action over unsolicited emails that consume academics’ time

July 23, 2021
Poster of Spam with person pretending to eat it as a metaphor for  UUK ‘should sue predatory publishers over tsunami of spam’
Source: Getty

UK universities should consider taking legal action to stop the “tsunami of spam emails” from predatory publishers that is consuming “vast amounts of academics’ time”, a scientist has argued.

Douglas Kell, who was chief executive officer of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council from 2008 to 2013, told Times Higher Education that he had witnessed a marked growth in the volume of unsolicited emails from predatory publishers in recent years, which he believed is related to the rise of open-access publishing in which scholars are usually required to pay to see their work disseminated.

“This tsunami of spam emails is totally illegal and consumes vast amounts of academic time,” said Professor Kell, who is now research professor of systems biology at the University of Liverpool.

“It is something that Universities UK should be tackling because it affects all their members,” he added.

Professor Kell suggested that UUK should sue so-called predatory publishers in a similar action to the 2019 lawsuit brought by the US Federal Trade Commission, a consumer watchdog, which saw a Nevada court order the OMICS International publishing group to pay $50 million (£36.6 million) in fines for “deceptive publishing”.

The Hyderabad-based publisher, which criticised the summary judgment as “unjustifiable”, was sanctioned for practices including publicly listing scientists as reviewers without their knowledge, or after they had asked to be removed as affiliated to the group, failing to make clear it would charge authors to appear in their open-access publications, and wrongly claiming that scientists would attend scholarly conferences that it organised.

According to a study published last year the global cost to researchers of dealing with spam emails targeted at academia is $1.1 billion (£850 million), assuming scholars spent five seconds reading the four or five targeted emails they received on average each day.

Researchers in some disciplines receive considerably more spam each day, with a Journal of Dentistry paper published by Brazilian researchers in April putting the daily figure at roughly eight emails a day, or 234 a month.

Speaking to THE, several senior UK academics, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how dealing with invitations to conferences in particular had become increasingly time-consuming.

“Once you get on their mailing lists the invites – often wildly off-topic for my expertise, just keep coming,” said a University of Oxford scientist. “They typically invite you to present a talk on any subject you want – but you have to pay to talk, presumably so the speaker can boost their CV and they can boost their profit,” he added.

“They use poor tactics,” said another Russell Group university professor. “I have also been told in emails that friends were also speaking, trying to get us to agree, and vice versa – I usually double-check with those I know to make sure that it is not a scam,” he added.

Another eminent Oxford academic, who was listed as a speaker on an event organiser’s website, also told THE that she had no knowledge of the event. “They may have invited me [to speak] but I did not accept or even respond,” she said.


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Reader's comments (2)

Even though I am retired as an active academic I still receive at least 20 unsolicited spam emails a day from open access publishers and conference organisers. It really is time something was done to stop this avalanche of unwanted emails.
I had my very first peer-reviewed paper, on health economics, published in a reputable open access journal just a few weeks ago. On 6 July to be precise. Within less than a day I began to receive a torrent of unsolicited emails inviting me to submit papers to all kinds of journals and conferences that have absolutely nothing to do with health economics! If this is my experience after just one paper has been published then I dread to think what really established academics are having to cope with.