“Greetings of the day!”
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Explore This IssueFebruary 2020
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My email account used to be flooded by these cheerful salutations, referring to me as an esteemed colleague or a thought leader.
I have to admit: at first, I enjoyed receiving these messages. Normally, when I log into my email account, I’m greeted by messages—punctuated by red, capital letters—that announce dire consequences for missing yet another mandatory requirement. This was a nice change of pace.
The messages would then proceed to flatter me: The author would note that he admired my accomplishments in my field, often citing some article I had written as particularly insightful.
The email would then go in for the kill: The author, who just happened to be the editor of a journal I had never heard of, would invite me to publish my next article in his publication.
As a pessimist, I am rarely disappointed. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate unearned flattery as much as the next person. That said, when the author starts kvelling like my mother, it is hard not to be a little suspicious.
By the time I reached the end of the email, I knew enough to delete it—in fact, I now have an email filter that automatically deletes any message that includes the phrase “Greetings of the day!” I later learned that these messages were coming from predatory journals. From the sobriquet, it is not difficult to divine that these journals have nefarious intent. But what is the motive, and more to the point, how could an author suffer from publishing her work?
The Spanish Prisoner & the Nigerian Prince
The predatory journal is an indirect descendant of the Spanish prisoner scam, which dates back to the 18th century. The setup was simple: A wealthy patron was being held prisoner—unjustly, of course—in a prison in Spain.1 The mark would be contacted by purported businessmen who would spin a tale about trying to spirit the wealthy patron out of the country. They just needed help coming up with the money for the ransom. The mark would be reassured that the patron would, of course, pay him generously for his help. Eventually.
The scam moved from Europe to Africa in 1920, when P. Crentsil wrote a letter to a resident of Ghana, declaring that he had magical powers. Calling himself “the Professor of Wonders,” Crentsil wrote that he would be willing to use his supernatural abilities for the benefit of the recipient of the letter—for a small fee.2
These are all examples of an advance fee scam, which is also known as the Nigerian 419 scam—Nigerian, in honor of the country of origin of many of the early missives and 419 to signify the part of the Nigerian penal code constructed specifically to deal with these crimes.
The classic example of a Nigerian 419 scam is the tale of the Nigerian prince. In this variation, the mark receives an unsolicited letter from an alleged member of the Nigerian royalty, who needs the help of a trustworthy soul to move his fabulous wealth out of the country. At first, the mark is asked only for a letter, documenting his willingness to help. Subsequently, the mark is told about a fee or a bribe that must be paid to move the funds. If the mark forwards the fee, then other, unforeseen calamities inevitably emerge, each of which can be resolved with just a little more cash. The scam continues until the mark realizes that there is no Nigerian prince or runs out of money—whichever comes first.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an advance fee scam as a scheme in which “the victim pays money to someone in anticipation of receiving something of greater value—such as a loan, contract, investment, or gift—and then receives little or nothing in return.”3
With predatory journals, instead of money, an unsuspecting author is duped into handing over something else of value—an article. It is difficult to place a dollar value on a case report, but for those of you who have written one, you know that it is not zero. A good discussion section might require several hours for research and rewrites; obviously, an article about original research takes exponentially more time, since it takes time to perform experiments or to calculate P values.
To the authors of these articles, time is money. But why are these articles worth anything to the predatory journals? And more to the point, how do predatory journals manage to make $75 million annually?4