I’m a graduate student with, so far, one published article in a peer-reviewed journal. Since the article came out, I’ve been receiving increasing amounts of “academic e-mail spam” from people wanting me to attend their conferences, publish in their (usually pay-to-publish) journals or order research supplies from them. (The latter kind tend to be the easiest to filter out — even though my field is biomathematics, it doesn’t mean I have any use for frozen mouse embryos whatsoever.)
Some time ago, an e-mail turned up asking me to review a manuscript, conveniently attached to the message, for a pay-to-publish open access journal in a somewhat related field. Googling for the name of the publisher, I found them described as e.g. “a borderline vanity press”.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure how to react. On one hand, I could think of several reasons to just go ahead and review the manuscript:
The main complaint about the publisher seems to be that their peer review is insufficient — a claim supported by the fact that they seem to be picking random grad students as reviewers. Still, given that they’re at least making some effort at peer review, surely I should encourage them in that? After all, if nobody agreed to review manuscripts for them, how could they ever improve their review process?
Declining to review the manuscript might deprive the authors — who, if the journal is indeed a “scam”, are presumably the victims here — of useful feedback. Surely they at least deserve that much return for their time, efforts and money?
Also, if the manuscript did get published in a scientific journal, no matter how dubious or marginal, it would enter the body of scientific knowledge, and might be used as a reference by others. Given that, surely it is my duty as a scientist to try, given the opportunity, to do what I can to ensure that it is at least correct?
Still, despite these arguments, I initially found the idea of willingly responding to spam to be deeply unsettling at a fundamental, almost visceral level. Also, I felt concerned that, by doing volunteer work for a possibly unethical publisher, I’d be supporting their business model and perhaps lending them an undeserved appearance of legitimacy.
In particular, given that the subject of the manuscript wasn’t that close to my own field, I worried that it might have errors that I would not be capable of spotting, and that, even if I made this clear in my review, the publisher might still use the review to support the publication of a possibly flawed article.
(Edit: Just to be clear, I wasn’t worried that they’d reveal the names of reviewers, just that, even if I was the only one who sent back a review, they might still use it to claim that “yes, the paper was peer reviewed.”)
In the end, the decision was actually rather easy: after a cursory glance at the manuscript, it became clear that there was no way I could support its publication as written, especially given that large fragments of it were clearly plagiarized, and I wrote back to the journal stating as much.
However, if I ever receive a similar request again (and I assume I probably will, sooner or later), what do you think I should do with it?