Spamferences thrive; junk journals prosper

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I was recently moved (screaming and struggling, as four strong men held me down by my arms and legs) to a new web-based university email system designed and run by Microsoft: Office 365. Naturally, it's ill-designed slow-loading crap, burdened by misfeatures and pointless pop-ups that I do not want popping up, and it fails to allow various elementary operations that I often need (every upgrade is a downgrade). But that is not my topic today. I want to note one special sad consequence of moving to an entirely new system: all my previous email system's Bayesian machine learning about spam classification has been lost. The Office 365 system has had hardly any data to learn from as yet, so I am seeing some of the stuff that would have been coming to me all along if it had not been caught by machine learning and dumped in the spam bin. And what has truly amazed me is the daily flow of advertising for spamferences and junk journals.

Spamferences are conferences with no academic value that accept every paper offered and charge high enough fees to make serious commercial profit provided at least some people turn up to present their papers. You book a block of space in a huge hotel in a pleasant place, send out a few million invitation-to-submit emails to scholars in a slew of popular fields, automate the business of accepting and listing all papers submitted, and charge the credit cards of the vain, gullible, deluded, or corrupt academics who decide to attend.

I once got an email from an idiot who hadn't figured out how to program the mail merge system correctly, so it addressed me as "Dear Professor [Name][Name1]" (I wrote about it here). What a [Expletive1][Expletive2]. It told me I was to be an "Invited Speaker" (capital initials!) at a conference in Vouliagmeni Beach, south of Athens, to speak on "Social Sciences, Law, Finances and Humanities". More usually the computer and information sciences are targeted, as with the invitation to an Internet of Things conference that Mark Liberman discussed here. I get invitations to spamferences several times a week now, because Office 365 hasn't yet learned to spot them and put them in the spam pot that it calls Clutter. (It does, however, incorrectly park in there messages that are clearly personal, legitimate, and addressed solely to me, so I have to slog through the Clutter folder occasionally and write apologies to the frustrated senders of the parked messages.)

Junk journals are publishing outlets for articles that are established either to make money or to provide extra opportunities for little-known scholars in countries desperate for a higher academic profile (or of course both). The three main countries involved in this seem to be China, China, and China. This is the website of one of the largest junk journal publishers. At least some of its journals (as is pointed out here) have sometimes pumped up their content by illicitly reprinting past papers from other journals without permission. Another junk journal, the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, once accepted (on the basis of reportedly excellent reviews) a paper that consisted mostly of the sentence Get me off your fucking mailing list repeated many times (though the paper was not published because the submitter didn't want to pay the $150 article processing fee). It's not an exaggeration to call junk journals that: they really are junk.

Junk journals generally rent a mailbox in New York or Los Angeles and an email address that at least looks like it might come from the USA, and they send out article solicitation spam that is a little more carefully crafted and believable than the average phishing spam. I hadn't realized until my recent involuntary move to a different email system that solicitations for junk journals are still going on at a rapid rate: I am getting about one per day, in disciplines ranging from medicine to soil science to engineering, and occasionally linguistics.

Today (not for the first time) I received a very courteous email (smarmy might be a better adjective) that purported to come from a journal editor, addressing me personally ("Dear GEOFFREY K. PULLUM": all capitals!) and saying:

I have had an opportunity to read your paper `The Central Question in Comparative Syntactic Metatheory' which is published in Mind & Language, and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field.

It then goes on to invite me to submit a paper to "a new peer-reviewed open access journal which focuses on scholarly research and practical experience in the field of English language teaching, which includes, but is not limited to the following field: English language teaching, second language acquisition, applied linguistics teaching and learning."

Now, I did indeed write a paper called "The Central Question in Comparative Syntactic Metatheory," and Mind and Language did publish it in 2012. But it is a theoretical paper on an abstruse technical topic: the potential theoretical advantages of one mathematical technique for formalizing syntactic theories (the model-theoretic one) as opposed to another (the proof-theoretic or generative-enumerative one). You could search far and wide for quite a long time and never find a paper further away from practical concerns like English language teaching or applied linguistics. If the editor of the junk journal in question really thinks on the basis of reading my M&L paper that I might therefore want to submit to a junk journal devoted to the important practical topic of language teaching and learning, then she hasn't read it. She has picked it at random so she can lie to me about having read it and say something flattering about my expertise. That's what's going on.

The journal's business plan, clearly, is to gather hundreds of thousands of triples <NAME, PAPERTITLE, JOURNAL> (where NAME wrote PAPERTITLE and PAPERTITLE appeared in JOURNAL) and send out hundreds of thousands of spam emails saying "Dear NAME, I have had an opportunity to read your paper `PAPERTITLE' which is published in JOURNAL, and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field" — and then invite NAME to submit a paper.

What I need is a script that for a given triple of arguments <EDITORNAME, JUNKJOURNAL, JOURNALTOPIC> taken from a junk journal spam message will compose and send a standard reply saying:

Dear EDITORNAME: Your flattering reference to having read my paper is clearly feigned, because anyone who understood it would see that it has nothing even remotely to do with JOURNALTOPIC and thus could not support the guess that I might be interested in submitting a paper to JUNKJOURNAL. Never darken my electronic doorstep with your spam ever again.

Twenty years ago I would have been able to do this easily, using a shell script that piped its output to the old-fashioned Unix mail program. But today I can't, because Office 365 stores my emails in a proprietary non-ASCII format in the cloud (on a server in Ireland, actually, so that the US government can never instruct the server farm to hand over all the university's emails to the CIA — not that I would care), and does not have the flexibility to permit my script automated access to the plain text of mail messages. I'd have to do it all by hand. Every upgrade is a downgrade.

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