Definition of Spam: The word "Spam" as applied to Email means Unsolicited Bulk Email. Unsolicited means that the Recipient has not granted verifiable permission for the message to be sent. Bulk means that the message is sent as part of a larger collection of messages, all having substantively identical content.
Source:http://www.spamhaus.org/definition.html. Accessed: 2008-03-08. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5WATKMPhU)
As a publisher and editor of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, a leading open access journal (and the #2 cited health informatics journal), I am (as many of my colleagues) usually very sympathetic to any new open access journal start-ups, and I know that some sort of marketing is necessary to attract submissions from top authors (luckily, JMIR has survived its first 10 years and now naturally attracts submissions from top authors). While JMIR never engaged or engages in any unsolicited bulk emails (we send out content alerts only to users who have opted-in), some other (in particular open access publishers) seem to betray the trust and sympathy bonus they receive by many researchers by relentlessly spamming researchers' email accounts asking for articles / submissions.
Several factors contribute to this plague, including (1) the ease with which author emails can be extracted from PubMed/Medline and other bibliographic databases, (2) the economics of open access publishing, where journals compete for authors (while subscription-based journals compete for subscribers/libraries) (3) the general goodwill of researchers/scientists associated with publishers (most want to keep good relations with publishers, as they know that they have to "publish or perish") and particular towards open access journal publishers.
Some spammers also use flattery as a technique - spam messages from Bentham actually contain the ridiculous note that "This is not a spam message, and has been sent to you because of your eminence in the field" - and some researchers are open to such flattery.
I fear that these practices of some black sheep among OA publishers will damage the reputation of OA journals at-large, so I decided - from now on - to publicly denounce any publishers (and others) engaging in this practice - in form of handing out a virtual spam award.
My first spam award goes to Bentham Publishers, a "publisher" of "over 200" author-pays open access journals. In the past couple of months I have received no less than 11 emails from Bentham, all mostly identical in text and form, all signed by "Matthew Honan, Editorial Director, Bentham Science Publishers" or "Richard Scott, Editorial Director, Bentham Science Publishers", "inviting" me to submit research articles, reviews and letters to various journals (I got one email per journal!), including "The Open Operational Research Journal", "Open Business Journal", "Open Management Journal", "Open Bioinformatics Journal", "Open Ethics Journal", "Open Analytical Chemistry Journal" and so on - all of them sent to me "because of your eminence in the field" (wow, I didn't know I was so eminent in so many fields! As an aside, the claim that "this is no spam because you are eminent" defies any commonly accepted definition of spam - a message is spam if it is bulk and unsolicited, whether the recipients are all Nobel prize winners or not is irrelevant).
All pleas and begging from my side to stop the spamming, as well as clicking on any "unsubcribe" links did not stop the spam plague from Bentham.
The bulk email "invites" me to submit articles and to pay for publication - "modest open access publication costs are usually covered by the author's institution or research funds.".
Buyers beware! There is a (limited) number of "serious" OA journals out there (such as PloS, JMIR, and others), where authors (or authors' institution) pay for the publication costs, but there are also throw-away journals out there from shady publishers trying to cash in on the current surge of interest in open access publishing.
Researchers who are in doubt about the reputation and scientific standing of a journal should check if the journal is Medline-indexed (none of the Bentham journals is actually Medline-indexed, although the spam emails suggest otherwise), and whether the journal receives any significant citations (check Web of Science or the Journal Citation Reports) before submitting to any Open Access journal.
And my recommendation for fellow scientists /researchers would also be to make it a principle to not submit anything to journals that engage in the practice of spamming.
Enough of these - PLEASE! (excerpt from one of a dozen spam emails I received from Bentham)
A couple of years ago, Biomed Central also engaged in quite aggressive marketing techniques, including spam emails (and even sending out emails which contained a preformulated praise of BMC, asking the recipient to send this email to colleagues). After I pointed out the (questionable) ethics of this to them (that was back in 2004), they seem to have stopped it - or was I only put on a blacklist, and others still receive this? Please contact me / comment here if you still receive those spam emails from BMC or if you know of any other spammers in this field.
Other spam examples from publishers
Postscript (added 21/04/08)
Richard Poynder, a journalist who also commented on this post, has taken up the issue and plans to publish an interview with Mr Honan, a publishing executive at Bentham. In this, Mr Honan denies any wrongdoing, and says "the complaints are unjustified. We are mailing researchers on a limited basis to try and kick-start a number of Open Access journals, as indeed are a lot of other publishing companies. (...) The recipients are able to unsubscribe from these publishers' mailing lists if they want to, just as they can from our list." (Mr Honan, quoted by Richard Poynder, personal communication, 21/04/2008).
To rebut these claims I am uploading screenshots of my (a total of 4) requests to stop spamming (I hate the term "unsubscribe" as it suggests that I subscribed to anything in the first place). The emails all contained my uhnres.utoronto.ca email adr (to which I believe the emails were sent) and were sent from my gmail account, so they had at least those two email addresses. My unsubscribe emails were sent on Oct 24, 2007; Jan 4, 2008; Mar 5, 2008; and Apr 4, 2008. So far I received spam emails on or around Aug 23, 2007; Oct 22, 2007; Oct 24, 2007; Dec 12, 2007; Jan 1, 2008; two emails on Jan 2, 2008; Jan 4, 2008; Mar 5, 2008; Mar 22, 2008, and Apr 8, 2008 (see figures below).
Figure 1: Spam emails from Bentham asking me to submit my papers to their new journals
Figure 2: My 1st request to cease spamming
Figure 3: My 2nd request to cease spamming
Figure 4: My 3rd request to cease spamming
Figure 5: My 4th request to cease spamming
As an aside, the onus is NOT on the spam victim to prove or trace which email addresses they used to spam to, or to send them unscubribe emails.
The law is clear, Bentham has been breaking the law, and their attitude "we haven't done anything wrong and everybody does it" is unbearable. Perhaps they really need a judge to tell them that, if they don;t listen to the community they are claiming to serve (researchers). Their conduct is far from being reasonable - I am not against a limited amount of emails inviting certain experts to contribute to a journal, but not as a bulk (if I do this, I usually know the researchers personally), and their flurry of emails clearly crosses the line (according to their bulk email they even contacted me as an expert for "Analytical Chemistry"). I didn't even have any other previous business relationship with Bentham (the same can not be said for Elsevier, Springer, and BMC, where I had previous business relationships, so I might be more forgiving when I get something from them, and a lenient judge may rule that it is not spam if a previous business relationship existed.
The attitude "everybody does it, so we'll do it too" is exactly what leads to the ever-growing amount of spam from publishers - a vicious circle which I wanted to break with my blog post and giving this issue some publicity. An official apology and pledge not to continue this practice would go a long way. Instead, according to the interview, they seem to hold on to their position that what they are doing is a legitimate way of doing business. It seems to me that they are asking for getting sued.
Postscript (added 23/04/08)
Richard Poynders' comment & interview with Bentham executive Honan has now been published [URL:http://www.richardpoynder.co.uk/Honan.pdf. Accessed: 2008-04-23. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5XIpNqa1o)]. In the interview Honan claims that researchers like myself who desperately tried to get off the mailing lists of Bentham were simply too stupid to inform Bentham about all their email addresses ("The particular people (...) have multiple email addresses. That means that when they asked to be removed from our list we removed them — as we always do when we are asked — but they continued to receive messages via their other email addresses. We can only completely remove them from our list if they give us all their email addresses."). Taken aside the issue that spam victims are under no obligation whatsoever to do the research on behalf of Bentham what other email addresses the company may have on file, and taken aside the issue that the very process of letting researchers "opt-out" rather than opt-in is illegal, his claim is also simply untrue, as can be seen in the screenshots above. I clearly sent at least 4 different email requests which contained both my gmail and my utoronto email address, yet the spamming continued to exactly those email addresses (no, there was no forwarding from other email accounts). Honan is lying, and is it unfortunate that Poynder let him get away with simply denying any wrongdoing and downplaying the at best unethical and at worst illegal nature of their business behavior. I pity the researchers who have lent their name to Bentham (Archived in WebCite here - and I note that my colleague Dr Furedy is still listed here despite - as Poynder suggests - repeated attempts to get his name removed from the Bentham website). I don't often wish Open Access projects to fail, but I have to say that I am getting increasingly concerned about the role of commercial open access publishers.
Postscript (added 03/06/08)
Matthew Honan from Bentham has sent me a formal apology (after I threatened to sue them and demanded dislosure of what personal information about me they have and with whom they share it):
We wish to apologise to you for the inconvenience the email messages we sent to you have caused. We admit we should not have done this especially since you had requested on several occasions not to receive further emails from Bentham Science. It was down to our error for failing to do this in a timely way for which we sincerely regret doing and apologise once again to you. You will never receive messages again from us. We are also going to stop such activity as much as possible from now.
We have no personal data on you on file. The reason for sending you the emails were for soliciting a paper to several of our new open access journals. We certainly would never forward your email details to any third parties or other classes of recipients. The source of your emails were located in the public domain at the following urls http://www.jmir.org/about/contact http://www.hpme.utoronto.ca/faculty/list/eysenbach.htm
We do not have a record of email addresses with specific dates we sent you the messages in the past other than the dates you cited to us. In my interview with Mr. Poynder I would like to make it clear that he did not discuss with me your complaint until several days after the interview and then after I did request him to state an addendum of apology to you from Bentham Science.
For now, this settles the matter for me - unless I am getting further emails from Bentham I will probably not take any legal action.
Meanwhile, I am continuing - partly as a result of the Bentham affair - my efforts to create interest for an Association of Open Access Publishers, which - among other objectives - will make sure that its members (gold OA publishers) adhere to some ethical principles, which includes responsible use of email. A "Bird-of-a-Feather" meeting will be held at ELPUB (see this post).
Postscript (added 09/07/08)
New spammers: Dove Medical Press and Libertas Academica, both based in Auckland, both published by Timothy Hill or Tom Hill (the same person?), also use relentless spamming techniques, flooding prospective authors with unsolicited emails as a marketing strategy. The issues are remarkably similar to the Bentham case: The marketing is not targeted - I received "invitations" to submit articles for journals which are not in my field (e.g. Bioinformatics and Biology), I have been unsuccessful to get off their mailing list, there are no automatic unsubscribe links (not to talk about the fact that I never subscribed to anything in the first place), and when I finally got through with my emails, publishers were unapologetic (for details see comments thread to this post).
Anybody receiving these kind of invitations should submit a complaint to the New Zealand Spam Complaint System
Postscript (added June 15th, 2009)
- Bentham continues to be in the news with ethically questionable and unprofessional behavior. In April 2009, a Bentham editor (Professor Marie-Paule Pilen) resigned from her post after a Bentham journal published a controversial 9/11 conspiracy paper. She said she had not seen the paper before it was published.
- As reported by The Scientist, Phil Davis, an ex-librarian, open access critic, and author of a study which claims that open access does not lead to improved citation impact, and Kent Anderson, executive director of international business and product development at the New England Journal, sent a computer-generated paper to Bentham, which was accepted in June 2009, with Bentham claiming that it had undergone peer-review (interestingly, Davis said one of the reasons why he did this to Bentham was the persistent spamming from Bentham - so despite my warnings to Bentham they seemed to continue it!)
- Bambang Parmanto, a University of Pittsburgh information scientist and editor of the discredited Bentham journal which accepted Phil Davis' fake paper, subsequently resigned from his editorship at The Open Information Science Journal (TOISCIJ), claiming that he hasn't seen the paper
- Luckily (partly as a result of this blog entry and the subsequent discussions), the leading Open Access publishers have now gotten together and created the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (I am a founding member and on the Board of OASPA). OASPA membership can be seen as a qualiy seal, as members comit themselves to quality criteria such as peer-review, and OASPA will sanction members that behave unethically or bypass peer-review (Bentham is not a member of OASPA). OASPA responded to the Bentham affair on its blog here.