Spam is nothing if not resilient, and spammers nothing if not tenacious. But that doesn’t make spam right, and spammers…well, would you want one living in your neighborhood? Don’t answer that last question; it was rhetorical. No matter what you believe, you’d need to be quite the humanitarian to think good of people who make a living by pestering, infecting, and pilfering others. Scams are particularly offensive, because they’re designed to separate people from their hard-earned money using misdirection and outright falsehoods. Scams often don’t offer any practical value for the money spent, leaving those who have been scammed feeling violated. And there are plenty of scams circulating the Internet. Combine spam with scams and you’ve got a devastating one-two punch that, unfortunately, ensnares people in their sticky web of deceit. Thankfully, some people manage to ensnare the scammers, uncovering them for what they are, and if you appreciate irony, you’re going to love this one.
Back in 2005, two American researchers named David Mazières and Eddie Kohle wrote a ‘paper’ consisting of just seven words, written over and over again: “Get me off your f***ing mailing list.” The phrase was repeated 863 times and was formatted to resemble, at a casual glance, an actual well-formed paper. The paper even incorporated diagrams, graphs, and flow charts, all using – you guessed it – that seven word phrase. According to iflscience.com, the two scientists created the paper in response to repeated conference invitations, and it’s been in circulation ever since. Now, you might think the profanity-laden paper was a bit excessive, but who knows how many conference invites these two were getting?
Now, jump ahead nine years. Dr. Peter Vamplew, an Australian computer scientist, has received dozens of spam messages from the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology. Sounds like a pretty official name, but that’s where it stops. Taking one look at the ‘Journal’s’ website (and it’s short, nonsensical URL) reveals what this site really is. Vamplew also received spam messages from similar ‘journals,’ according to The Guardian, and he was fed up. “There’s been this move to open-access publishing which has often meant essentially a user-pays system,” Vamplew told The Guardian. “So you pay to have the paper published and it’s available to the public for free.”
According to The Guardian, “an academic librarian at the University of Colorado, Jeffrey Beall, told Nature magazine last year that up to 10% of open-access journals were exploiting the model by charging a fee to proofread, peer-review and edit a research paper without actually carrying out the work.” This of course creates an environment for scammers, who take advantage of the egos of others. Vamplew said that ““They’re predatory journals, preying on young, inexperienced researchers who unwittingly don’t realise they’re of questionable quality.” If you check out this link, it’s obvious to see that there’s quite the market for this type of thing.
So fed up and not willing to take the constant spam, Dr. Vamplew decided to do something about it. Aware of the paper created in 2005, he decided to submit it to the IJACT. Vamplew told The Guardian that he expected the website’s editors to “read it, ignore it, and at best take me off their mailing list,” and in the legitimate world, that’s exactly what any reasoning person would expect. So imagine his surprise when, weeks after submitting “Get me off your f***ing mailing list,” the journal responded to Vamplew. “It was accepted for publication. I pretty much fell off my chair.”
Of course, there were conditions. “They told me to add some more recent references and do a bit of reformatting,” Vamplew said. “But otherwise they said its suitability for the journal was excellent.” Which says an awful lot about the IJACT. Now, of course, there was one additional condition: in order to have his paper published, Vamplew would need to pay a fee of $150 to the journal.
These scams are more common than you realize, and this is an important cautionary tale for anyone who steps foot into the Interverse. Spam comes in many colors, shapes, and sizes, and while some are innocent in the sense that they just want you to buy some sketchy meds from India, others are designed to get a quick monetary hit from you. We all know how easy it is to simulate a legitimate site; even if IJACT is suspicious from the first look, others aren’t so easy to detect.
And there’s another cautionary tale in Dr. Vamplew’s story. While his scheme has received some much-needed humor and recognition, he laments, “they still haven’t taken me off their mailing list.”