A new kind of insidious, Internet-enabled academic fraud is sprouting in the world. It’s called “bait-and-switch publishing.” And it’s already infecting the Nigerian academic community very badly. So what is this new fraud and why should you care?
First, in general, “bait-and-switch” scams are kinds of confidence tricks where unsuspecting customers are lured into (or “baited” to) an attractive, often too-good-to-be-true, offer. Once the customer’s interest is sufficiently piqued and sustained, the terms of the offer will often change (or “switch”). For instance, a car that was advertised for $1000 might end up costing three times the advertised price after additional, hidden costs are added. This kind of scam takes many forms.
In academic publishing, bait-and-switch scams wear academic gowns. They typically happen this way: A cute-sounding but actually fraudulent “academic journal” sends out an unsolicited email "call for papers" to individuals whose email addresses are scouted on the Internet using email-harvesting software, the kind that 419 scam artists use to get your email addresses. The software specifically targets email addresses that are listed in academic conference presentations and on university websites.
In the email solicitations, the egos of unsuspecting victims would be artfully stroked. They would be told that the papers they presented at conferences have been found to be superb and potentially earth-shattering. The cute-sounding but fraudulent journal would then inform the suckers that it would be delighted to publish their papers. Since promotion to the next rank in academia is usually dependent on number of publications, many naive academics are often overjoyed when they get these email solicitations. (I have received and continue to receive quite a few myself).
Nigerian academics are often particularly delighted by these solicitations because the National Universities Commission (NUC) now insists that for lecturers to be promoted to the status of professors they must publish some of their work in "international" academic journals. But the email solicitations are just the bait.
The switch occurs after the paper has been purportedly peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. The authors would then be asked to pay a “service fee” for the reviewing, editing, and printing of the paper. In Nigerian academe where the culture of paying fees to journals for the publication of articles is already a tradition, this switch raises no eyebrows.
That is why a Benue State University lecturer by the name of Michael Atovigba is psyching up the Nigerian cyber community by claiming in a July 28 Guardian interview to have solved a 262-year-old mathematical puzzle based on an article he published in a bait-and-switch Pakistani journal.
Mr. Atovigba’s claims to unparalleled mathematical genius might very well be true, but we have no way of knowing this for certain because he chose to publish his “record-breaking” findings in the “Research Journal of Mathematics and Statistics” owned by a bait-and-switch publishing company called Maxwell Scientific Organization. By Atovigba’s admission, he paid $150 (about 23,000 naira) to get his article published.
In the proper protocols of academic journal publishing in Europe and North America and, I guess, elsewhere, academics don’t pay a dime to have their articles published. That is why the bait-and-switch publishing scam will find no suckers here. A Canadian lawyer by the name of Antonin I. Prebetic was almost suckered into the fraud by a different company called David Publishing Company until the scammers demanded a “service fee” (the kind Atovigba paid to Maxwell) before his article would be published. He recounted his experience in a widely read blog post. In the comment section of the article, many other people shared their tales of near misses with other bait-and-switch publishing scams. The "service fee" is always the red flag.
But bait-and-switch publishers are not bad simply because they demand illegal “service fees” from authors; they are bad because they flagrantly circumvent the time-honored protocols and quality control of the academic peer-review process. First, legitimate academic journals don’t send out random, unsolicited emails to individuals, flattering them and requesting that they submit their articles for publication. They rather send out calls for papers on their websites or on academic listserves. Authors can also seek them out.
Second, after receiving submissions from authors, editors of legitimate journals in Europe and North America send out the articles to two or three experts for a blind peer review. That means the reviewers have no idea who the authors of the articles are nor do the authors of the articles know who the reviewers are. This makes assessment reasonably detached and fair-minded. (Bait-and-switch journals advertise the names of their "reviewers" on their websites).
One of four things can happen to a peer-reviewed article: it may be recommended for publication without revision (which is very rare). It may be recommended for publication with minor revisions. It may be recommended for publication with major revisions. Or it may be rejected outright. For an article to be published, at least two out of three reviewers should recommend it.
As you can imagine, the review process is often time-consuming because it usually entails several back-and-forth exchanges among authors, editors, and reviewers. It takes anywhere from six months to two years for the review process to be completed. Rather perversely, in academia, reputable journals are often those that have a high rejection rate. Journals at the bottom of the totem pole usually have a high acceptance rate.
In bait-and-switch journals, no real peer review takes place since the ultimate goal of such journals is to extort money from unsuspecting authors; they are not interested in knowledge production and dissemination. Similarly, the journals have a hundred percent acceptance rate and a zero percent rejection rate.
To give an example with Atovigba’s self-proclaimed earth-shattering article, it was submitted for review on January 8 this year and it was accepted for publication on February 03. That is less than one month of review! There clearly was no review. I was managing editor of an academic journal for four years and have myself published articles in academic journals and reviewed for others. The shortest peer-review time I have ever experienced or heard of is one year.
I am innumerate and can’t sit in judgment over the quality and claims of Atovigba’s article, but one clear evidence that the article was never truly peer reviewed can be found not just in the unusually short time span between its submission and its publication but in the fact that of the seven references in the article, a whole four are from Wikipedia, the usually helpful but occasionally error-prone and unreliable online collaborative encyclopedia. No respectable journal will allow Wikipedia references to form the majority of the bibliographic references for a scientific inquiry. Many university teachers, in fact, don't accept Wikipedia references in their students' work. Wikipedia is not a scholarly source; it can be changed, manipulated, and vandalized by anybody with an Internet connection!
So Maxwell Scientific Organization (why, by the way, would an organization based in Pakistan be known by the name “Maxwell”?) scammed Atovigba who, in turn, inadvertently scammed the Guardian newspaper, which ultimately scammed a Nigerian populace that is thirsty for heroes. But the problem is even deeper than that. Most of the suckers for this bait-and-switch publishing scams are Nigerian academics. For instance, in the volume where Atovigba’s article appeared, the two other authors in the journal are Nigerians.
This is also true of many other well-known bait-and-switch journals that I have looked at for this article. For now, I have no clue where these scams are originating from. I can only surmise that they have a Third World provenance because they can’t possibly find takers in Europe and North America. But it is interesting that Nigeria that has notoriety as the headquarters of 419 scams is disproportionately the victim of these emergent publishing scams.
Whatever it is, the NUC and university administrators (HODs, deans, vice chancellors, etc) need to act fast to stop this scam before it matures into an intractably hydra-headed epidemic. Our universities’ problems are already bad enough; we can’t afford to have a bunch of “bait-and-switch” lecturers and professors strutting around our campuses inebriated with a false sense of their academic prowess.
Farooq Kperogi can be reached at [email protected]