Clarke’s Rule of Academic Emails

Any academic working in the past half century or so has come to understand that their research lives or dies, not by its quality, but by its ‘impact’.

This has a particular meaning in academic circles. It means how many citations your work has received, how widely it’s been read, how many times it got tweeted about, and so on. It’s a vain attempt by bean counters in academic administration to implement yet another performance metric and apply it to researchers.

A similar term is ‘outreach’, which is again a vain attempt to quantify and measure (and set targets about) the extent to which an academic’s research gains traction beyond academic circles. This is of course easier to achieve in some disciplines than others. If you’re researching cures for cancer or some sexy aspect of history, there’s always an outside chance a newspaper might pick up your work and mention it. If you work in politics or social policy, you might even get mentioned in a government report.

All academics are now under pressure to achieve impact and outreach with their research. Sometimes their jobs depend on hitting targets over which they have no control. Little wonder, then, that people have seen a financial opportunity in this.

Last month, I received an email from “Julian” at an entity called ‘Research Outreach’. They offered to do all sorts of sexy things with my work on Buddhism and Pulp Fiction, creating ‘resources’ which I could use to publicise my work and achieve higher impact and outreach.

Sounds good, right? But I’m the suspicious type, so I googled them. In my response I then clarified that I didn’t have hundreds of pounds to spend, that I am myself a trained journalist who produces online content, and that I didn’t want to speak to them by phone (where I feared I’d be inflicted with a hardsell). And so they went silent.

Then today I get another email, this time from “James” at “Science Animated”. The wording of the email was almost identical, except they offer a slightly different package, involving making little videos which can be disseminated on YouTube about my work. I noticed that James and Julian had the exact same telephone number. So again I googled.

Lo and behold, it turns out that there are quite a few such entities based in the same Gloucestershire office, all dedicated to providing promotion “services” to fraught academics, promising impact and outreach. I kept googling.

Now, some of you may recall how I turned the tables on a predatory publisher and got them to publish my ridiculous article on mermaids in their journal previously. I’m somewhat more pressed for time now, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the Gloucestershire Impact Mob functioned, so I decided not to engage. I sent James the same email I sent Julian and suggested that they might want to convene with one another before contacting me again.

Then I checked the following ResearchGate post, in which a valiant academic has attempted to restore and update the lost list of predatory publishers once maintained (until threatened with legal action) by Jeffrey Beall. And therein, about a year ago, is a message from an American academic discussing this outfit. Which led me in turn to this post, in which 300 or more academics discuss them.

As far as I can tell, their business model seems to run like this: they have multiple similar or identical operations all running out of the same office, which is red flag number one. Number two is that they spam academics from all disciplines with the exact same email. There is mention of a “cost” and a request to speak to them for five minutes by phone. Many of their staff appear to be sales operatives, and few to none seem to be academic experts in any particular discipline, so we can surmise how that phone call goes.

According to some people on the ResearchGate post, they seek hundreds of pounds (the figure of £890 was mentioned) to produce promotional and PR material in relation to your work. This seems to then get disseminated solely in their own publications (which of course are not peer-reviewed, though at least they don’t claim they are.) I have no idea who is reading these publications. Possibly no one. And their fees for making an animation are notably higher again.

This was the LOWEST quotation on offer!

James later got back to me to clarify that, yes, there’s a whole bunch of similar companies with shared ownership operating from their office, and that they “aim” to provide 80,000 “impressions” during a four week campaign. An aim is not a promise or a contractual agreement needless to say, nor does an internet page impression equal engagement (try arguing that one with your academic administrator!) Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing how many of those impressions are generated by bots.

This business model isn’t illegal, but to my mind it’s not ethically much of an improvement on predatory publishers. They too are attempting to leverage large sums of cash out of the desperation of gullible academics panicked by target-hitting in the ‘publish, promote or perish’ arena of contemporary academic research.

It’s a strange hybrid of vanity publishing and excessively expensive DTP services. I’d hesitate to even call it PR. It’s not like they’re going to press release your work to the BBC, after all. Again, it’s an issue of caveat emptor. Buyer beware, just as with the predatory publishers.

Foolish academics will part with their cash (or with some of their hard-achieved funding) in the desperate hope that paying these people will lead to more citations, more people reading their work, more “outreach” and “impact”. It most likely won’t twitch the needle much if even at all.

Is there an alternative? Sure, I can think of a couple of good ones, neither of which cost a penny, and both of which are much more likely to be impactful and outreachful (yes, it is a word now!)

You could touch base with your Research Office and/or Public Relations Office in your own institution and work with them. It’s literally their job to do this kind of thing. Alternatively, you could pitch an article on your work to The Conversation, which publishes articles by academics worldwide, and then offers them for syndication to the world’s media. I’ve had colleagues reprinted in the British broadsheet press, and online in places like Yahoo News.

In summary, let me formulate Clarke’s Rule of Academic Emails: If someone sends you an unsolicited email asking you for money in return for promising to assist your academic career, what they’re offering is unlikely to assist your academic career and may actually hinder it.

I appreciate there may be exceptions to this rule, but thus far I haven’t come across one.