Editorial Boards, Editors-in-Chief and Identity Theft – A Cautionary Tale

November 14, 2013

I was asked last week to help a member of the Massey academic staff who had found that she appeared on the website of a journal that she had never heard of, listed as its Editor-in-Chief. Closer examination revealed that another Massey academic was listed as the Editor-in-Chief of another title from the same stable of publishers, and in both cases their photos and short biographies had been taken from the Massey website. Yesterday I wrote to the publishers protesting strongly and identifying their behaviour for what it was – identity theft, a serious act of malice towards the people concerned and an attempt to parasitise their good names and that of Massey University. I also promised them their very own blog post – they may have thought that they had selected some sleepy hollow far off in the South Pacific to play their games with, but if that was so then Massey turns out to have been an exceptionally poor choice – so here it is.

Fortunately they saw fit to reply almost immediately and not only have the names and images of our staff disappeared from their website but the journals themselves have been removed as well. They don’t seem to have grasped, however, the sheer outrageousness of their actions so there’s still a good case to be made for walking them through it slowly and carefully. Their exact words were “we regret for any inconvenience caused to you” but there was no suggestion of an apology to the individuals involved and no acknowledgement that they had played very fast and loose with reputations. They went on to point out that one of the Massey staff had in fact responded in some way to an email from them as if this were a justification for the misappropriation of their identity and image, but there was no suggestion of any further communication with this person and it is simply ludicrous to suggest that someone could be Editor-in-Chief of a journal without actually knowing that they were. If that makes any sense then I’m President of Iceland. (I’m not, I just checked.) Anyway, it seems that there is just a fig leaf of honour among these thieves and that they are more likely to steal your name if you respond to them in some way.

Now there’s a warning here for our academic community. Years ago we learnt to be careful with certain types of email, in particular anything that might suggest any sort of monetary transaction. Then we learnt not to click on links in emails. (Every week it seems I still get emails from someone called Webmaster warning me that my mailbox is full and inviting me to click on the link, although why my Webmaster would have crook@dumbster.com as their email address I can’t think.) So now there’s a new one, don’t reply to emails about editorial boards from anyone who is not known to you, preferably in person but at least by reputation, and make sure that the person you are emailing is who they say they are. If the request comes from an organisation, is it one that you already know of, does it have an existing reputation and does it do something other than just publish journals and run conferences? (The subject of junk conferences is for another time.) If it’s a new journal what other existing journals does the publisher already put out? Are they already known to you and others in your field? The two staff who just had their names deleted were lucky, and if they get hold of yours simply emailing them and asking them to remove it probably won’t work.

Part of me thinks that because these guys reacted so promptly to my request then I shouldn’t name and shame them, but I’m still pretty annoyed about their audacity and I don’t think they should get away with simply running a take-down policy with a touch of “we regret the inconvenience” so here goes. The journals involved are the International Journal of Advancements in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and the International Journal of Advancements in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering. Their websites are not currently active but you can see their content here and here. They seem to be short projects from engineering students of a fairly predictable kind, such as a proposal for jet-powered automobiles and a wikipedia-powered piece on robotics. In themselves they are both unexceptionable bits of vanity publishing that wouldn’t merit a moment’s notice, but they are also not something that a respected academic would want to be associated with, and fall well short of the claim that they “publish high quality, referred papers” and offer “survey and review articles from experts in the field, promoting insight and understanding of the state of art, and latest trends in the field.” Five other journals from the same stable are still active and despite being on different subjects they have identical editorial boards which were also the editorial boards of the International Journal of Advancements in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and the International Journal of Advancements in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering

International Journal of Advances in Computer Science and its Applications

International Journal of Advances in Computer Networks and its Security

International Journal of Advances in Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks

International Journal of Advances in Electronics Engineering

International Journal of Advancements in Electronics and Electrical Engineering

So what’s the big deal and does any of this really matter? A few students had their work published in pseudo-journals with fancy-sounding titles and some names, photos and bios borrowed from the Internet to make them look like the real thing, so what? No real harm was done, surely. Well, there’s just this. I’m guessing that for most of these students this was their first experience of being “published” and that is always a bit of a thrill. It also looks good on their CVs, at least to the untutored eye. But I’m guessing that these students also know that this isn’t the real deal, that these journals don’t have real academics as editors-in-chief and that their work wasn’t really peer-reviewed. And if they don’t know this then someone should have told them. Instead their lecturers and supervisors have been complicit in this charade and have failed in their primary duty to these students which is to instill in them a powerful sense of ethical responsibility that will stay with them throughout their professional careers. I don’t know about you, but I really want the rising generation of civil, structural, environmental, mechanical and aeronautical engineers to follow the highest ethical standards, and I certainly wouldn’t want the guys designing the jet-powered automobiles to cut any corners. Even worse, I don’t even want to think about the implications of teaching students of network security that it’s okay to fake someone’s identity. The mind boggles.

If the world of fake academic publishing existed in some quite separate space from the real academic world (no sniggering!) then this wouldn’t be a problem – nobody expects a paperback romance to win the Man Booker Prize, for example, at least not unless it’s 800 pages long and really well-written – but in actual fact there is a crossover between these two worlds. Academics are often very eager to publish and may not even be aware of the fact that the journal they have submitted their work to has no actual peer-review process. They may allow a co-author to choose the journal and later find that their name appears in a title they would never have looked at alongside work that is badly-written, naive or even plagiarised. They may think that they are helping out a legitimate new journal. They may agree to join an editorial board without realising that their name will then be used for other journals in subjects quite outside their own area of expertise. All of these techniques are used to create an impression of legitimacy that in turns allows the perpetrators to tear down the walls of good scholarly practice and ethical research practice from within. This is not to say that everything is perfect in the scholarly publishing garden but simply that they could be made a whole lot worse if we are not careful, and that a cordon sanitaire needs to be placed around bad practice of this kind.

So here’s what we can do. We can take this stuff seriously for a start. I recently had a tweet from the Scopus Content Selection Advisory Board to say that they had my earlier blog post on on the table while they discussed this issue and I commend them for that. If you are a researcher looking for a place to publish then make sure that your journal is above board and that the publisher acts ethically. If the peer review process is suspiciously easy then that may not be the case. Check out a few of the articles in the journal and decide whether your work would feel comfortable there. But here’s the important thing. If the post penetrates as far into the academic blogosphere as some of the others have, then I’m confident that some of you who have read this far will know someone who just needs a little reminder about the ethical responsibilities of scholars and scholarly publishers – if that’s the case tweet it at them, email it to them or print it out and quietly drop it onto their desk while they’re at lunch. I’d be much obliged. For the rest of you just tweet and retweet until your fingers hurt. Thanks.

Bruce White
eResearch Librarian

2 responses to “Editorial Boards, Editors-in-Chief and Identity Theft – A Cautionary Tale”

  1. WoW!ter says:

    You’re lucky with this publisher so it seems. We can’t get one of our professors removed from the list of editors of Omics organic chemistry. They just won’t listen.

  2. brucewhite says:

    Yeah, these guys are newbies and probably don’t welcome bad publicity whereas Omics are clearly shameless. Damage to their reputation – to quote from the letter I received from the American Academic and Scholarly Research Center – is probably the only thing that would work.

    Here’s how Scopus could help. Omics publishes a lot of journals, most of them of very low quality and infrequently cited. However, they obviously have pretensions in this area and it probably supports their fake conference business. So here’s the system – if an author wants to be removed from an editorial board and has had no response from the publisher they email Scopus who also also email the publisher. If there is no response to this then any time any article from any of their journals is cited in Scopus the citation appears in red. Scopus maintains the integrity of its bibliographic record but the publisher gets a little reminder and authors might just become wary of citing these articles. As soon as the publisher is “clean” the citations revert to black. An algorithm should be able to manage this and there is no interference to the bibliographic record which is, after all, colour-blind.

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