Academic Vanity Publishing: Why Some Things Are Too Good to Be True

As I opened my mailbox this morning, I noticed that one of my new messages carried a particularly exciting subject line. “Invitation letter from X*) turned out to be a message which complimented me on my recent conference presentation, and invited me to submit my paper. My essay, the e-mail promised, would be published quickly and with a minimum amount of hassle. Wow! Someone likes my work! Someone wants to publish it! And it’s gonna be easy! Awesome!

Well, not really. Fellow presenters, Twitter quickly informed me, had received the exact same e-mail. Unless we’re all amazing (which we are, of course, but that’s hardly the point) something wasn’t quite right. And it wasn’t. This e-mail, which I’ve received many times before, from a variety of so-called publishers and journals, is part of a phenomenon better known as academic vanity publishing.

Vanity publishing is hardly new. The problem has been haunting the non-academic publishing sector for years, as this excellent website demonstrates. With an ever-increasing pressure on academics to get their work published as journal articles, book chapters and monographs, some cheeky buggers have discovered a whole new area of easily deceived (and occasionally desperate) clients.

This is a problem. Intellectual property is valuable. Sure, it’s important to get published. But getting published in a dodgy way does not help you when you’re trying to climb the academic ladder. In fact, it may damage your reputation, your career, and if you’re really unlucky, your bank account.

There’s plenty of useful information out there, including advice on what to look out for, but as I believe warnings can’t be repeated often enough, here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This line sums it all up, really, but a few more specific bits and pieces won’t hurt
  • Be wary of publishers who approach you, especially if they do so quite aggressively. If you’re a respected expert in your field, you may get invitations to speak at conferences, contribute to edited volumes, or publish monographs. If you’re an early career scholar or PhD-student, it’s highly unlikely
  • Do your homework. A quick Google search may reveal all you need to know: that the publisher is based in someone’s attic, that the authors they claim to represent don’t exist, or that their publications carry little or no weight in your field
  • Be careful when asked to pay to be published. Some open access publishers charge fees and this can be perfectly legitimate, but they’ll always be upfront about it. Don’t agree to anything if you don’t know how much you’ll be paying or what you’ll be paying for
  • Self-publishing is not the same as vanity publishing. While there’s some debate about the value of academic self-publishing, there are legitimate self-publishing organisations out there who will be honest about the fees they charge and the services they offer. In any case, consider whether this will benefit your career before you go for it
  • Sometimes all you need to do to identify a dodgy e-mail is read it carefully (which, as a researcher, you should be able to do). The e-mail I received today came from a supposed law journal. Law is not my field. It never has been. I don’t write law papers. I never will. I haven’t got a clue. If someone doesn’t even bother to check out what you actually do, and approaches your colleagues with the exact same e-mail, this gives you a good indication of their academic rigour
  • Be wary when anyone promises you that publishing will be quick and easy. I am working on several projects at the moment and quick and easy they are not. Slow and frustrating doesn’t equal good quality, but in many cases academic publishing is a long, tedious and annoying experience which will repeatedly invoke the desire to bang your head against the nearest wall. Several times. Peer review and revisions take time, it’s as simple as that, and anyone who claims that they can do a superfast job isn’t doing said job properly

I sometimes feel working in academia is like swimming in a tank full of sharks: pretty cool, but also pretty dangerous. Don’t sell yourself short, don’t let others exploit you, and most importantly: never let your ambition get in the way of your intuition.

*I’ve left out the name of the “journal” in case they take offense with me not obeying their orders which read, I quote, “Expecting your kind reply!” I will neither be kind, nor will I reply, thank you very much.

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