UU English Department Blog

Why emails from predatory publishers are full of obvious errors


By Andrew Cooper

As anyone who has a previously-unheard of and recently deceased great-uncle in the Iraqi Special Forces who has left them eighty million dollars (80,000,000USD) knows, email scams work. They generate money in pretty much the same method as a puffball mushroom reproduces – by sending out thousands upon thousands of spores in the hope that one will land somewhere hospitable. In the case of the financial spam scam, the spore is an email and the hospitable environment the mind of a very naïve or vulnerable person.

A response rate of one in a million may be enough to recover the tiny costs of sending out a chain email. In contrast, a high response rate might not be worthwhile. Cormac Herley argues that spam emails are deliberately absurd, giving bizarre offers of huge amounts of money, filled with basic grammatical and pragmatic errors, precisely in order to exclude people of average competence. These weaknesses, which any proficient thinker can spot, exclude people who are likely to identify the con later in the process, so-called false positives. The scammer does not want to waste time on people who will smell a rat and decline to send him the $500 processing fee after the third email. The initial contact is therefore just absurd enough that almost nobody will fall for it – and those who do will fall for almost anything.

This obviously does not apply to academic scams. The ideal target has above-average competence by definition, they are specialised professionals. The invitation must rather play on their desperation and isolation. Junior academic staff have many onerous duties and constant pressure to outcompete their colleagues. This environment encourages hasty decision-making. However, the scammer still wants to avoid false positives – but how?

When it comes to using English as an academic language, we have to consider who is using it and what for – which inevitably comes down to where. Kachru’s circle model places the English-native speaker countries (the UK, the USA, etc.) in an Inner Circle, where English is used for (pretty much) everything. Then there is an Outer Circle, comprising mostly former colonies in Asia and Africa, such as India or Nigeria, where English is used as an administrative language or among educated people, but where other languages are used in other circumstances. Then there is the Expanding Circle, such as China, Russia or Brazil, where English is used for international communication, but has no significant status within the country. John Bohannon found that, of the journals that accepted an obviously fake paper he wrote, their IP-addresses placed them disproportionally in Indian and Nigeria, Outer-Circle countries with substantial academic communities, but where tertiary education has only been available to the upper classes.

Since Swedes only use English between themselves in very specific circumstances (for example, air-traffic control), Sweden should be considered an Expanding Circle country. However, we show much higher proficiency in English than any of the Outer Circle countries, usually coming in 1st or 2nd in the world on English First’s Proficiency Index. So these circles are not closely associated with proficiency, but with the areas of life (technically, “domains”), in which English is used.

The ideal target for the predatory publisher, therefore, is a highly-educated person whose English proficiency is strong enough to produce a plausible academic article. However, their knowledge of Inner-Circle culture and publishing practices must also be weak enough to not evaluate the likelihood of an offer which is too good to be true, or they must be so fatigued or frazzled that they will clutch at any apparent offer of support.

Last modified: 2021-02-22