06 October 2004

Pay to Play

Professor Leiter has pointed out that vanity press scams are making their way into low-level academia. A couple of weeks ago, he remarked on "an 'undergraduate publication opportunity' scam" known as The Undergraduate Quarterly. Interestingly, today he has a followup column, including an extensive quotation from a satisfied customer. I do not have sufficient information to determine whether this does in fact qualify as a "scam" yet. For example, I haven't seen a copy; nor have I gotten any indication on the cost of the journal itself, nor its circulation; nor, most importantly, have I gotten any data on the rejection system, rates, and quality of rejected materials. However, I am not encouraged by some of what appears in Professor Leiter's followup column.

To begin with, look at the assertions made by the "publisher" of the journal. Mr Zaky, the editor, objects that:

Last quarter, 78 applicants each paid $25.00 to submit their articles to The Undergraduate Quarterly. That is roughly $1,950.00 in application fee revenue. Yet, this revenue was not nearly enough to pay for our $5,500.00 in merit-based scholarships (given to the best authors of the publication), $5,000.00 in IT, $2,200.00 in attorneys fees (for assistance in copyright law[)], $6,340.00 in printing fees, $1,000.00 for mailing, not to mention the extra several hundreds of dollars in general overhead.

Where does one begin with this? To start with, the application fee now appears to be $35, not $25; thus, the same submission activity would result in $2700 in income, not the less than $2000 cited. Second, one must question the need for "$5000 in IT" on a continuing quarterly basis. Perhaps $5000 in IT would be necessary to get up and running, although that seems very high—an internet account, a good desktop machine and backup, a good office-level laser printer, one of the major "office software" packages, and one of the major "publication layout" practices doesn't even add up to $3000. The copyright-law assistance seems high, too; this might be necessary at startup, but certainly does not (or should not) represent an ongoing expense. The fun is in the mailing and printing fees. These imply that the Quarterly, presuming that it's 224 pages (which would be about average for this kind of publication), printed over 5000 copies (with a four-color laminated cover), but mailed only about 850 of them. A smaller issue could have mailed more copies, but would have printed far more to reach "$6,340.00 in printing fees." And, of course, all of this was done for no subscription money and no advertising money. Riiiiiiight.

But, leaving aside the dubious math and finances, there's the truly dubious submission model. Say what you will; disguise it as an "academic journal" or whatever; it's still a vanity press. Further, the "satisfied customer endorsement" letter is practically identical to the kinds of "satisfied customer letters" one can obtain from other vanity presses, ranging from old-liners like Dorranc3 and Rutl3dg3 down to New Age "POD presses" like iUniv3r53 and Au+h0rH0u5e; only a few of the details have been changed and a few of blanks filled in.

Perhaps this is an attempt to apply a different publishing model. Admittedly, the honesty of the academic press system leaves a lot to be desired; but, at least on the basis of what has thus far been disclosed, I cannot concur that the particular changes made by The Undergraduate Quarterly represent an improvement. The irony that a journal that is at least partially oriented toward philosophy and academic searches for "truth" essentially resorts to deception (whether willfully or not) to obtain submissions, and what that may mean for the future of the journal and the value of its content, are left as an exercise for the student. In standard manuscript format, please.