Academics are under pressure to produce increasing amounts of ‘academic products’, the most prestigious of which are journal articles. There’s an overall busy-bee mentality in contemporary academia that, though playing out differently in different institutions, leads to overproduction on the one hand, and insecurity on the other. Rarely are departments, or grant committees, or any other seat of power, transparent about exactly how much is enough. The result is a constant fight to beat your imagination.
This dystopian situation has been noticed and exploited by entrepreneurial and unscrupulous types. In any given week, I receive at least one unsolicited and dubious offer to publish my work and/or present at a conference. Though articles and conferences are very different, a kind of CV loophole makes it so one can write off conference presentations as articles. And given the more the merrier mentality, it is no wonder that academics are bombarded with bullshit offers of both kinds. Though perhaps in itself funny (the language of the so-called offers is always quite hilarious), this phenomenon raises important questions about academic work today. This is what I would like to think about in this post.
Looking carefully at the typical message I get about journals and/or conferences, there are certain things that stand out and that give a clue as to the nature of the academic culture that makes this possible. Just the other day I received yet another conference invitation from SGEM World Science. This company, based in Austria, organizes what appear to be dubious conferences all over the world. The message I recently received was for an event in Sofia, Bulgaria, with the conference topic of Social Sciences and Arts. Yes, really, that broad. And that is precisely the point – all of these invitations cast a wide net so as to fit as many topics as possible. Under the main title of the conference, there is a subtitle that reads: International Indexed Scientific Conference. And this is the first give-away: because of the CV loophole I mentioned above, as long as a paper is ‘indexed’, it can be written off as an article. What’s more, SGEM promises that they will also publish your conference paper after peer-review, which makes the conference even more attractive. Never mind that a serious conference shouldn’t really advertise the fact that they will subsequently peer-review your paper; it goes without saying that a paper sent for publication is peer-reviewed. In plain language, the deal is: send any old paper in the general areas of social science and arts (meaningless terms in this context, really), and you are all but certain to get a legitimate looking publication out of it. And you get to go to Sofia, on department money, most likely.
Similarly, I recently received an offer to publish my work in the International Journal of Business and Social Research, supposedly covering areas from Accounting Theory and Practice to Philosophy (yes, all of it). On their very legitimate looking website, it is humbly stated that its mission is to cut waiting times in academic publishing and to embrace open access. This noble goal makes it possible for anyone to publish anything and pass it on as real work. For dubious conferences and journals, the format is always more or less the same: wide net cast through improbable titles, plenty of trendy keywords (they are all inter or multidisciplinary, indexed, peer-reviewed, high quality, international, and so on), opulent display of symbols of contemporary academic prestige (related to previous keywords) and, very importantly, clearly advertised EASE of publishing/presenting. This last point addresses another real problem in academic research today, namely the unbelievably long waiting times between writing something up and getting it to be read by people. In my field (environmental political theory) it can take years for a paper to see the light of day.
In an environment where one is always expected to do more, where actual oversight is minimal, where it takes years to get your legitimate work published, and where it costs thousands of euros to make your real work really open acces, no wonder these kinds of schemes proliferate. And there are several kinds of people that would fall for it. The first are naive junior researchers that feel the pressure and think they have stumbled upon a really good chance. I have had junior colleagues seriously ask me whether to submit their work to some International Multidisciplinary Journal of Anything Goes Research. The fact that they asked me, a post-doc, says something about academic culture as well: most people I know would have a hard time asking their supervisors a similar question, because they are simply expected to figure it all out on their own and get on with the job of publishing. The second kind of person that gets caught up in this is the one that acts on the so-called editorial office of the so-called journal, that organizes the conference, that reviews and is complicit in peddling crap. These are the opportunists and loan-shark types that will do anything to get ahead, and unfortunately the academic environment is very good at selecting this kind of smart and unscrupulous type.
The underlying message of the fake publication racket is: you’re getting ahead, you’re doing the right thing with less hassle and with all the stamps of authenticity. I suspect many will choose to ignore the signs of fraud, hoping that everyone else will do the same (chances are, they’re right). The sad part is that all of the meaningless keywords that fake offers use to disguise themselves are copy-pasted from legitimate academic journals, grants, conferences, and so on. I have written elsewhere about the incredible language used to apply for EU funding, for example. When both legitimate and illegitimate operations use the same empty language, we have entered truly dangerous territory. But the deeper problem is this: people get into academia because they’re curious and passionate about a subject and want to take their time studying it. They instead find themselves in an environment that breeds distrust, rewards short-term ‘results’, and constantly evaluates their performance (just getting a PhD is no longer enough to be considered a member of the scientific community that can be left alone to do their thing). The only solution to this problem, which is in fact the problem of academic culture today, is to hand out less PhDs (make it harder to get one), and allocate enough money so that most anyone with a PhD can continue their work. Short of this kind of systemic shift, I am sure to get more and more invitations to vacation in cool destinations while also doing prestigious scientific work, pre-peer-reviewed for the benefit of all.