Last year I received an email from someone who claimed to be part of a foundation that  tackles romance scams. It started like this:

“To Dr Payal Arora,

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is X. I am also a victim of a cyber crime, a romance scam stemming from Nigeria. The reason I am contacting you is to bring attention to cyber crime, more specifically romance scams. Cyber exploits of this nature target mostly women, to lure them emotionally. Exploiting that vulnerability is what the con artists know best…As we speak, I am preparing for a trial to be heard in Abuja Nigeria…”

What did this person want from me?

She wanted me to be on the board of her cybercrime foundation to raise money. She shared the names of prominent academics and professionals already on the board.

While this email appeared legitimate, what struck me was how closely the text of the email resembled a paper my colleague and I had just published a week before on Internet romance scams. To be sure, I contacted one of the board members and got this as part of his reply:

“…I should say I do not know the person you are talking about and I have yet to be contacted for anything related to such. As it sounds, I think it is not legitimate since this is an obvious lie.”

Admittedly, this email was not an instant delete for me.

In retrospect, this was an impressive feat by what I call the “Internet academic scammer.” To use the language from my publication and customise the email accordingly, invoking real experts for the board for the purpose of credibility, was altogether brilliant. Not to forget, how could we miss the irony here on ‘scams?’

It made me reflect on whether I had been unwittingly complicit to other schemes of this sort. I have lost count of the number of times I have added people on LinkedIn believing I know them, given my peripheral encounters with numerous people through my work travel.

As scholars get pressed for time in this age of research commodification, the knowledge systems that we facilitate are being compromised as we spread ourselves thin.

Predatory conferences now outnumber official scholarly events, ran the headlines in last year’s Times Higher Education. These events feed on the scholars’ desperation to present at international conferences and move up the ladder.

Fraudulent peer reviews are on the rise. As editors increasingly seek authors’ recommendations for reviewers, an opportunity emerges where fake reviewers can step in to play the system by churning out positive reviews.

Springer Nature last year had to retract 107 papers from one of its journals due to fake peer reviews.

The open access initiative, whilst being a worthwhile alternative to exploitative publishing models, has also opened the doors to bogus journals. These predators prey on the vast cohort of academics under tremendous pressure to publish or perish, whilst simultaneously trying to juggle administrative workloads.

Taking a page from my Internet romance scams research, this trend tells us less about the intelligence of the victims and more about the vulnerabilities that the contemporary knowledge regime amplifies as it props itself precariously on the academic’s already burdened shoulders.

Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

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