A peer-review phishing scam
I thought you would be interested to know about a very interesting scam that has been going around lately (well, interesting from my perspective, I research scams for a living 🙂 ).
It is in a form of a very well executed spearphishing attack. It targets academics, and would be particularly effective against postgraduate students (I know it took me a while to realize it is a scam and at least one of my colleagues didn’t, but got stopped by me in time).
The way this works
You get an email, from a journal editor (in my case from Science Journal of Economics. The web-page URL is sciencejournals.cc) asking for a peer review of an article. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with academic publishing – all articles are reviewed, for free, by researchers in the chosen field. They then post a review to the editor and the editor makes a decision about publishing said article. A legit peer review request would look almost identical to the one received.
I went and checked – the Journal web page seems OK. On the face of it, the fledgling journal is sparsely populated with articles, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? For me an additional issue was, that about a fortnight ago, I actually did speak in person to an editor of a small family run journal, whose name I have instantly forgotten. He asked me to write for him. So I was not completely sure whether this was the same guy, who first wanted to test my reviewing skills, before asking for an article.
I asked a senior academic about this journal (My full email to them consisted of: ‘Is this for real?’), and he replied saying that it is a very new journal, but could be above board, so if I had the time, I should review the article. Now, this is the first brilliant move by the scammer: if they get a hold of a PhD student, they can count on them being relatively inexperienced in the process of peer reviewing, while at the same time they know that peer reviewing is a required part of the academic life; plus it might stroke their ego that a journal wants their opinion about a piece of research.
I replied, saying that they should sent the article over, with reviewers guidelines. This is what I got from them, things in [italic square brackets are changed by me]:
From: Editor [firstname.lastname@example.org]Sent: 28 June 2011 12:10To: [Me]Subject: Re: Manuscript For Review [article title]
Thank you for accepting our invitation to review with the Science Journal of Economics. Please find attached files, the full Manuscript , Instruction for Authors as well as the Reviewer’s Guide. You may present your evaluations the way you deem fit. If you wish to correct parts of the manuscript itself, please indicate your corrections with a different color (for example, red for addition and blue for deletion).
I am looking forward to your response.Best regards,Dr. John MorrisonEditorial Assistant
Enclosure: Manuscript,Reviewer’s Guide and Instruction for Authors
I downloaded the files and looked at them. The reviewers guide is competently written, very boiler-plate, but that is the way all of them are.
The reviewers form is quite elaborate, but not out of the ordinary.
I decided to just briefly look at the article, before actually reviewing it the next day. The article was horrible. Really, you can’t get much worse than that in a piece of academic writing. I wrote at least ten remarks for first paragraph alone, before I decided that this was not publishable and that it is just a waste of time.
So, I sent an email to my academic colleague:
From: [Me]Sent: 27 June 2011 00:07To: [Colleague]Subject: FWD: Manuscript For Review [article title]
OK, I’ve gotten the manuscript from the Journal we wrote about the other day and it is horrible. It is. I stopped correcting after the first paragraph of the introduction. There is, literally, several things wrong with each sentence in the first two paragraphs.I have appended my version with comments, so you can judge for yourself.
What I am wondering right now is – at what point is it ok to write back and say, this should not be accepted on the grounds of:
- It is written in something only approximating English language and grammar.
- Claims are unsupported
- Logic is shaky or non-existent
- In order for this to pass, I would have to rewrite sentence by sentence and I have neither an interest or the inclination to do that.
This essay actually about on a level of a 3rd for a first year [our University] undergrad.
I am now scrolling through it. It cites the source of their figures as “their own drawing”. The figures are not formatted in any consistent manner. They include helpful diagrams!! Words in the diagrams are clipped.
The References section is not consistently formatted. I am not prepared to read this crap. I looks like a high school essay.
Science Journal of Economics…. wait a second, I can’t find this journal wheen I google it. Hang on… sciencejournals.cc lists their head office as:Science Journal Publication Head Office:Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), Nigeria.Branch Office: Accra, Ghana.
It looks to me as if a high school student wants to get a good grade by having somebody review their essay for them.
This actually looks like a scam to me.
At the same time, I sent an email to John Morrison the associate editor of the journal
From: [Me]Sent: 27 June 2011 00:06To: Editor [email@example.com]Subject: Re: Manuscript For Review [article title]
Hi John, Please let me know which referencing style you expect the Authors to follow, so I can judge whether they are following it. I am also quite unclear about which category the submission you sent over, falls under (according to your Instruction for Authors guidelines). It is clearly not an article (method, results and discussion are missing). It is too long to be a review (17 pages of 1.15 spacing at best, but probably single spacing. Your guidelines specify 4-6 pages), and includes far too few references. It is also far too long to be a short communication.So, which is it? Please let me know as soon as possible.Sincerely,— [Me], Msc(dist), AHEA[My University]
Next day, I had a meeting at the University and asked several colleagues if they ever received a request to peer review an article (I wanted to know how to go about rejecting this job, as it made no sense to continue).
It turns out, all of them got the same request! To review the same article! Now, peer review usually does not include six or more of our friends. Strange … Most of them agreed that it was a scam, but had no inkling what the end-game was (i.e. how the scammer could get the money out of us).
I then went home and, working under the assumption that these were high school kids, looking to get peer reviewed and get good grades at school for their essays, I started thinking of how to write a letter to ‘the editor’ that would prime the kids to wish they never sent a request for peer review.
It wouldn’t work if I just said I am onto you, as that would not leave enough of a sting. What I needed to do is to write how crappy the paper was in no uncertain terms, while giving away as little as possible on how to correct it. Hopefully, they would be conditioned to not send their requests ever again.
So, I wrote this:
From: [Me]Sent: 27 June 2011 21:25To: Editor [firstname.lastname@example.org]Subject: Re: Manuscript For Review [article title]
I have stopped reviewing the article you sent over. It is not publishable, at least not in the present form. It would literally require rewriting almost every sentence in it. I assume it was translated (badly) into English, and it shows. It is hard to follow the logic of the argument, which admittedly might have something to do with very bad grammar, which makes the logic itself seem flawed.
The referencing is insufficient, and at times, claims are completely unsupported. Furthermore, the referencing is also inconsistent, and regardless of the referencing style required, sometimes just plain wrong (the Author does not avoid figures that are superfluous in any case, they give an impression of patronising the reader, which makes me want to say: I can read, I don’t need a picture drawn for me. Furthermore, if you draw a picture, support it with extensive referencing, not by saying it is good, because I thought of it). This is not befitting a scientific text, it explains nothing and is far too garish to even consider in an academic context.
The formatting is wrong (paragraph spacing, placement of figures and tables, etc). It does not follow your guidelines in any way, shape or form.
I leave it up to you as an associate editor to judge how much of this communication to share with the Author(s), but it is clear they need to invest substantially into writting articles if they want to be published in a respectable journal. Frankly, between you and me, if one of the first year undergraduate students from my University wrote this essay, I would have to search thoroughly for reasons not to fail them.
[… continued after the break]
I am covering my bases here – In case this is legit in the end, I don’t want to incur the wrath of the real Author. Also if the editor is not actually the editor, then they still get my opinion, but the Authors are not exposed to my dressing down. In other words, no legitimate journal would forward my writing to the Author.
Wasting your time and mine on this is a huge disservice to your journal – it raises doubts about your publication. I believe you should reject it immediately as considering it at all would give the wrong impression about your publication to the academic community. I realize you are not well established yet, but giving a longer consideration to this submission will sink you very quickly.
The biggest issue, though, is, that it has already been published, here: [the URL] I don’t know what your policy is, concerning republication of already published material, but this has a strange feel to it.
If the submission you’ve got is not under the names of [Author names], then it has also been plagiarised, down to the last word. If that is the case, I think you should act quickly and notify the submitting authors’ Institution. [… continued after the break]
Ok, at this stage I realized that this is a real article, just one that should not have been published. I found it on the net, on a semi-academic site. So, if these were kids, then not only were they looking for peer review, but they were blatantly plagiarizing too. So, I said I see what you did there, without directly claiming scientific misconduct.
The real authors were probably not to blame here (except the article really is quite bad and there is simply no way in hell that they would be published in a respectable journal). Still, that is why I am excluding them from the post by saying [Author Names], [Article Title], etc.
Once I found the article, I did a WhoIS on the site and concluded that this is certainly a scam. See my next email, to my colleague. This one still goes on, for one more sentence:
On a personal note, do you like spearfishing, John? I am a huge fan, perhaps we could compare notes at some later time? Sometime before April 2012 would be perfect for me.— [Me], MSc (dist), AHEA[My University]
I then wrote my last email to my Colleague:
From: [Me]Sent: 27 June 2011 22:06To: [Colleagues]Subject: Re: Manuscript For Review [article title]
(I am copying others into this, as we talked about it in the morning and we couldn’t figure out what the endgame was. And now, I think I know).
Oh, this is sooo a scam. The domain sciencejournals.cc is registered in Africa. It has been registered on the 1st of April of 2011 for only a year (see http://www.whois.net/whois/sciencejournals.cc).
The site is almost empty of content (there are only a few articles scattered here and there on the site).
The article they sent for review is taken from another site: [URL to the original Article] (this domain is marginally better – it includes a real contact address in Bucharest).
John Morrison (“the Associate Editor”) does not exist on the Internet (unless he is either an Orthopedic Surgeon from Great Neck, NY or a senior lecturer at Aberdeen University whose research interests are concerned with Scottish Paintings from 17th century).
I didn’t know what exactly is their endgame – at first I assumed high school kids are looking for someone to peer review their essays to get better grades, but when it turned out that this article actually exists and that the authors are actually from two Universities in [a third world Country], that theory got tossed in a bin.
I am not holding my breath about these people contacting me again, as I not too subtly hinted that they were spearphishing and that I am onto them. Perhaps they are only looking to fill out their sucker lists. I would love to know what they hope to accomplish. It would almost be worth reviewing the article to find out, but it is such crap, that I don’t want to suffer through it and also I don’t want to do a good job, and make it publishable under somebody else’s name, but doing a bad job potentially opens me to extortion (i.e.You call yourself an academic? What will happen once the scientific community finds out how clueless you are? Now, if you transferred a measly $1000 to this bank account, we could forget about telling everyone how badly you did at this review…).
We’ll see. It is a very good premise, though, and PhD students are a perfect population to fall for this (relatively inexperienced, perhaps reviewing strokes their ego a bit…). The only thing the scammers don’t realize is, that PhD students are actually paid a little less than a person on unemployment benefits, so them trying to get money out of us tickles my funny bone.
Hmm, another endgame might be them requiring us to submit the review on their site and for that we would have to register there. They have a registration system there… This is generally perfectly reasonable. We require it for [Our Conference] site. Reviewers might also get a “free journal subscription” out of it. But, here it is – we know that a vast majority of people uses the same password for all logins, which is terribly bad practice, but they don’t want to forget it. That means that a couple of people in Nigeria now have a username and password to, for example, somebody’s eBay, PayPal, Gmail, HotMail and amazon.com account and that unlucky person suddenly finds themselves ordering 20 copies of Black Nigerian Booty Hoes DVD from Amazon and sending it to Abuja, Nigeria. He received the notification, but the mails got deleted somehow, before he saw them.
Ah, cunning. Perhaps I am giving them too much credit, but this is how I would do it, if I was them. I like this scam now. They almost fooled me.— [Me][My University]
So, there you go, a very interesting phishing scheme. I think the public should be aware of it, especially the academic one.
I have not received any response from the ‘editor’ in three days. I think, they have dropped me now.
I am still running an experiment about falling for scams, so if you ever responded to an illegitimate offer, or lost any kind of money, sleep, etc. to scams, please answer my questionnaire: http://survey.scamresearch.info//43356/lang-en