Being an academic researcher, I receive a lot of unwanted email from journal and book publishers, and organizations preparing academic conferences. It takes time to have to weed through these emails every day, deleting the unwanted messages, responding to or archiving the potentially desirable messages, etc. This is time wasted that distracts and takes you away from the academic work you’re trying to do. I briefly discussed some general email management strategies in my previous post on how I work. And I discussed avoiding distractions in my post about manuscript writing. In the present post, I discuss how to deal with all this unwanted academic-related email, so that you can can take back your inbox!
(For the reader interested in avoiding non-academic, general spam email, see this Lifehacker post).
Where’s all this academic email spam coming from?
First, there’s a difference between 1) legitimate publishers and conference organizations, and 2) illegitimate, untrustworthy publishers/organizations, sometimes called predatory publishers/organizations.
I haven’t had bad experiences with legitimate publishers and organizations – ones that publish journals and organize conferences that are well-respected in their fields. These organizations typically have an unsubscribe web link at the bottom of their emails so that you can be successfully removed from their email lists. Where do the legitimate publishers/organizations get your email address? In my experience, these are publishers that publish the journals in which you have printed your work, and organizations that organize conferences to which you have submitted papers; so they already have your email address. Also, they can obtain your email address through direct marketing with the organizations you’ve dealt with, such as if you order a book from a legitimate publisher.
There are also predatory journals and conference organizations sending you unwanted email. These emails are from journals and conferences you’ve probably never heard of, often in the far east (though with American mailing addresses, because they’ve set up shell companies in America to appear more legitimate, and to evade paying taxes in their home countries). For example, OMICS is widely considered a predatory publisher, based in India. One of OMICS’ addresses on the OMICS website’s contact page lists a headquarters in the U.S. state of Nevada. That address, through a simple Google search, is linked to many other companies sharing that same address (including the same suite number), often a tell-tale sign of a shell company set up in another country.
Predatory publishers are typically open-access journals (but importantly, not every open-access journal is necessarily a predatory journal; see below for suggestions on distinguishing the good from the bad). These predatory journals exist, trying to appear legitimate so that early career academics who don’t know any better may submit their work there, essentially with guaranteed success of publication acceptance (and conference paper acceptance). Because early career academics are pressured with tenure requirements, it can be tempting to submit one’s work to these predatory publishers/conferences. However, these predatory organizations do not disclose up front that, after acceptance, they charge a steep fee to publish the paper (or attend/present at the conference). Given tenure pressure, young academics may give in. So these organizations have strong financial incentives to convince academics to publish papers in their journals and conferences, because tenure pressure in conjunction with promised paper acceptance can easily result in money trading hands.
One sneaky strategy used by some of the predatory publishers is that they name their journals with extremely similar names to legitimate, well-respected journals. I’ve seen, for example, a predatory journal called Journal of Depression and Anxiety, similarly titled to the well-respected journal entitled Depression and Anxiety.
Jeffrey Beall maintains the blog “Beall’s List” to distinguish the predatory journal publishers (including those publishing open-access journals) from legitimate ones. This list can be valuable to researchers to ensure that they don’t submit papers to the predatory publishers. In fact, it’s an interesting story of how Beall got started in this endeavor, and how he has received the predatory industry’s backlash against him (once sued by OMICS for an absurd $1 Billion for listing them on his blog!). I first learned about Beall’s story on WNYC Radio’s On the Media Podcast – here’s the story. But keep in mind that Beall’s List is maintained by only one person evaluating these publishers, and thus there could be differences of opinion regarding particular entries on his list.
Predatory organizations like these, it is believed, find your email address from email harvesting. Basically, they have automated computer software that frequently checks academic-related websites (publishers, universities) for email addresses that have been collected (such as if your email address is listed in a journal article you published, which is indexed on the publisher’s website or academic search engine’s website). Collected email addresses are then added to the predatory organization’s email marketing database, and are the target of spam email.
Here is a screenshot of some examples that I received in my email account recently, just over the span of a few days. They inclde invitations to submit journal articles, editorial board invitations, and conference submission invitations. Notice, as just one example, the last email listed at the bottom – from Austin Psychiatry. If you visit Beall’s List, you’ll see the Austin Publishing Group listed there as a predatory publisher (that group publishes the Austin Psychiatry journal). Several other emails listed here are from journal publishers that are also on Beall’s List of predatory journals, including Insight Medical Publishing, OMICS, SM Group, Jacobs Publishers, and The Scientific Pages.
I should note that these emails have gotten more sophisticated over time. Early on, they sounded impersonal and mass-produced, and with typographical and language errors. Nowadays, they sound more personal and of higher quality writing. One particular strategy commonly used these days is exemplified by the second email above, from a Dr. Tovar. This email refers to a previous email sent to me by Dr. Tovar, in an apparent strategy to make the recipient (me) feel guilty for not previously responding.
How do I avoid receiving these unwanted emails?
Unsubscribing. For the legitimate publishers and conferences, they typically have unsubscribe links in their email messages. These unsubscribe links are typically integrated into the organization’s email marketing campaign (e.g., popular services such as MailChimp), and clicking the unsubscribe link thus results in nearly immediate removal from their marketing list. So, unsubscribe from their email lists – you will soon start seeing fewer emails from these journals and organizations arriving in your email inbox. (Keep in mind, though, that you may have multiple email addresses subscribed to these lists, such as a personal email address and work email address).
The predatory journals and organizations often do not include unsubscribe links or instructions in their emails. Of the 14 emails in the above screenshot, upon closer inspection, I found that 5 of them did not contain any instructions or reference for unsubscribing. In all the remaining 9 messages, there were instructions indicated for unsubscribing, instructing the recipient to reply to the message with the word “unsubscribe” in the subject line. This type of unsubscribing is far inferior to (and far less successful than) web link-based unsubscribing; reply-based unsubscribing requires the publisher to manually retrieve and review the “unsubscribe” email you sent, and then manually remove your associated email address from the publisher’s database. Too often, reply-based unsubscribing falls through the cracks by the publisher, either through their lack of caring, or on purpose in order to keep you on their lists. Thus unsubscribing from predatory publisher emails is not often easily accomplished. Instead, I discuss other options next.
Assigning Spam Designation. Many email providers, such as Gmail, have a feature in their email systems that allow you to label an email as spam. Most people know that doing so places the email in your spam/junk folder. But many don’t realize that these email providers (e.g., Gmail) learn from your spam email designations what the characteristics of user-designated spam email is really like. So Gmail learns from these designations so that they automatically place future, similar email in our spam folders. This can be an effective strategy for future identification of such spam.
But spam detection isn’t perfect, resulting in false positive identification of apparent spam that is actually legitimate, and false negative identification of apparently legitimate email that is actually spam. This is why we sometimes need to look through our spam folder to find legitimate email that was mistakenly placed there by our email provider; and why we often find spam in our inbox. A better strategy may be Filtering.
Filtering. For the predatory emails that keep arriving in your inbox, setting up filtering or inbox rules can help substantially; though it requires a little up-front work on your part, and occasional tweaking. Most web-based email providers (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook 365, Outlook Web App), and email software clients (e.g., Outlook, Apple Mail) have filtering features. With filtering, you can set up rules that your email provider/client can process on incoming email messages to route them away from your inbox, perhaps sending them automatically to your junk/spam folder or the trash.
For example, using Gmail’s filtering feature, there are several options from which to select particular emails (e.g., based on sender email address, subject text, etc.), and options for actions to take when locating such an email (e.g., archive the message, delete it, etc.).
Below you can see a screenshot of filters that I have set up in my Gmail account. I actually have many, many more filters than seen here – this is just one screen of the multiple screens within my filters that I have set up. Take for instance the second filter down – this one is configured to automatically process any incoming email message from the domain jclinmedsciences.com (e.g., email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, etc.) by skipping my inbox, marking it as a read message, and with a label that tells me that it’s academic junk mail. I used Gmail’s web-based Settings->Filters and Blocked Addresses feature in order to accomplish this. Note that if the message arrived from an email address on a popular, legitimate domain, such as email@example.com (on the yahoo.com domain), I would want to filter that specific email address rather than the entire yahoo.com domain.
Incidentally, you may notice in this above screenshot that I have my filters set to never send these emails to my spam folder. I do this just in case my filters inadvertently filter out a legitimate message; I can go back to my academic junk mail label and locate the legitimate message later if needed. This is just a personal preference on my part.
But these predatory journal publishers are like parasites that prey on an unsuspecting host, perpetually returning (with more solicitations) and adapting to engage in more parasitic behavior. Take the first email filter in the above screenshot, for example – this filter’s domains that I specified to be filtered are from the SM publishing group. Initially, I had this email filter set up to only filter out email from the smjournals.org domain. When the group later sent me an email from this domain, it was successfully filtered out of my inbox so that I did not see it. However, this group owns many similar sounding web domains, presumably in order to try avoiding spam detection by the users and email providers they are spamming. Later I received emails from this group using their web domains esciencemedicine.com, as well as smjournals.net, and those emails arrived in my email inbox. So I subsequently modified my email filter to also include those domains as well. Another egregious example is the third to last filter in the screenshot – for the Austin publishing group, where you can see multiple different (but similar sounding) email domains that they use, that I’ve added to my email filter for that group, to ensure that all their email sent to me is automatically filtered out before ever arriving in my inbox. I use Google’s search operators to help me properly filter out the email (which is why you see multiple “OR” statements in my Austin filter); if you’re using a different service, it would have its own search operators also.
I use this same technique with the Office 365 email client for my work email account. As you can imagine, it takes a little time up-front to customize these filters, and a little ongoing time spent tweaking the filters. But it’s worth it. Why? Below is a screenshot of my email inbox currently, as I’m writing this post. I only have one email in my inbox; how many do you have? My inbox actually only had a few emails in it this afternoon (I archived the others after responding to them). My unwanted emails were filtered out (several arrived this afternoon alone).
Note that if you have a particular email account that you can use on a web-based email client (e.g., Outlook 365 in your internet browser) and ALSO on the mail app on your electronic device (e.g., Apple Mail’s app on a computer or iPhone), technically you could choose either method to set up your email filters (web-based or on the app). However, in this scenario, it’s better to set up the filtering for this email account using your web-based email client. This will catch the emails before they ever arrive on your device’s mail app – especially helpful if you check your email on multiple devices, so that you don’t have to configure each device to filter out the unwanted email. Filtering on the web will process the email at the server level, so that your device email clients don’t have to.
By the way, don’t bother responding to predatory publishers’ emails. Just filter the messages and ignore them. Responding is useless, and just encourages these predatory publishers.
Additionally, be careful when setting up your email filters. Notice that the filters in the screenshot above are based on the email address domains of the sender. I don’t often filter filter emails based on keywords. If I set up a filter to filter out messages containing the keyword “manuscript submission,” while some of my predatory emails would be filtered out, I would also inadvertently be filtering out legitimate email on journal manuscript decisions that I’m waiting for. Though I do have some filters to filter out messages with the words “Call for papers”.
Hiding. Unsubscribing from unwanted email, as well as setting up filters for predatory journal email, are good techniques for getting rid of email, now that it’s too late and these organizations already have your email address(es). But there’s also a great method for preventing these organizations (especially the predatory publishers) from spamming you in the first place.
Remember that the predatory publishers collect email addresses through email harvesting. The solution is for you, starting today, to never allow your email address(es) to be posted on academic websites again. Here’s what I do…
For journal article submissions where I am the corresponding author, on the manuscript’s title page I indicate my website address (rather than my email address) as the way that I can be contacted for reprints. Some journal publishers honor this, and when I receive the journal article’s galley proof to review, it’s my website address that is listed for contact rather than my email address. Other journals don’t like this, and they insert my email address in the galley proof anyway; when I send the galley proof back to the publisher with my corrections, I insist that they use my website address instead. I have template language that I use:
I do not give permission for my email address to be mentioned in this article. I receive too much spam email from biotech companies and other journal publishers that obtain my email address from previous articles that I have published, and would obtain my email from this article if you include it. Instead, please indicate something like the following: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jon Elhai via his website: http://www.jon-elhai.com
A graduate student recently told me that this response seems bold on my part, and that students or early career academics may feel reluctant to reply like I do to a more senior journal editor. However, it is the journal publisher’s production assistant who prepares the galley proof and is the person with whom I am corresponding (not the editor), and they almost always honor my request.
Infrequently, the journal publisher will contact me and tell me that their policy is that I must indicate some email address on the article, and that they cannot proceed to publish my article without an email address listed. In this case, I use the following strategy…
When required to indicate an email address, I indicate an old email address that I have that I no longer routinely check. I have that email address set up with an auto-vacation responder so that whenever anyone emails that address, the sender receives an automated reply indicating that I no longer use that email address, and it refers them to my website for contact information. This makes it possible for legitimate email senders (journal article readers) to contact me (though putting them through some hoops to do so). And it makes it unlikely that a predatory publisher will actually view my automated reply with my contact information and locate my real email address. It’s unlikely because these publishers use automated computer software to email harvest millions of email addresses, so they won’t and can’t feasibly manually check their received email to learn of my whereabouts.
(An alternative option to using an old email address is to sign up for a service that lets you create disposable, forwardable email addresses. That way, you could indicate your disposable email address in your journal articles, without revealing your real email address. I have used Blur by Abine, which offers masked email addresses as a free feature, along with other privacy features available for a fee. With Blur, you can provide your disposable email address on websites where people can find it. Anyone who emails you at your disposable email address would not see your real address; but the disposable email account auto-forwards the message to your real email address. And if you receive too much spam sent to your disposable email address, you could easily cease that disposable address and replace it with a new one).
In addition to not proving your email address on academic websites… Try not to provide your real email address for other purposes, such as purchasing products and signing up for services. Your email address can get you onto marketing lists when you do so, consequently resulting in spam email sent to you. One strategy is to use a secondary email address for all commercial transactions; or use a service such as Blur, mentioned above.
For your own sanity, unsubscribe and filter out unwanted academic emails, and hide your email address from academic websites.
I thank James Coyne, Steph Wells, and Michelle Roley for commenting on an earlier draft of this blog post.