Are Spam Filters Blocking Referee Requests?


A philosopher wrote in to share a lesson she learned recently.

Elizabeth Radcliffe (William & Mary) writes:

I wonder if others have had the experience of finding one or more referee invitations from journals in their spam or junk e-mail folders. This has happened recently to me and to someone else. In that person’s case, the journal had written months back and had contacted the person with two follow-up e-mails, all of which, he discovered,  landed in the spam mail folder. In my case, the request, from a different journal, was only about a week old. I rarely check my junk mail, but decided to do so when I heard about this case—and was surprised to find the same thing had happened to me. I’m mortified to think how many times this might have happened in the past, since any junk mail older than 3 weeks is deleted automatically by my system.

What the e-mails seem to have in common is that they contain an active URL  (http://www…  etc.) for the site where the journal instructions and submission are located. Perhaps this triggers an anti-spam program to discard the e-mail, in order to thwart clicking on links that download viruses?

It would be good for journal editors to be aware of this problem, especially if they frequently don’t get replies to their requests. But it also behooves all of us to be checking our spam and junk mail folders.

Depending on your university’s email system, you may be able to whitelist certain email addresses so that they’re less likely to get blocked. “Unjunking” the messages probably helps train the system’s spam filter, but I don’t know to what extent. If others have suggestions on how to avoid this problem, feel free to share. In the meanwhile, check your junk mail.

Uttaporn Nimmalaikaew, “Nostalgic”

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Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
2 years ago

I did a quick check on the Ergo database and it looks like about 9% of our referee requests had no response recorded, i.e. the person neither agreed nor declined.

This is only a rough estimate, and in fact the true figure is probably a bit lower than that. Sometimes a referee declines by email and the editor marks the request “Canceled” instead of “Declined”.

But anyway it hasn’t been a huge problem in our case, at least not from the editors’ point of view (though it’d be nice to get responses to all requests of course).

We use a plain ol’ GMail address. I would guess that’s not as easy to get past a spam filter as a recognized university address. But it may be that Google has gotten good enough at barring spammers that gmail.com addresses are largely trusted now. I don’t know how that works.

Our request emails contain https URLs, as opposed to plain http, which may also help.

A problem we did have recently was spam filters clicking the links as part of their audit, generating bogus “Agree” and “Decline” responses on behalf of potential referees. So we had to add a confirmation step, when someone responds so fast they might be a bot. I noticed many of the requests I get from other journals now include a similar step.Report

Louis Schneidermann
Louis Schneidermann
2 years ago

I once had a verdict of revise and resubmit that went to my spam folder — I found it a year later and asked if I could resubmit still. I was told that I could not! I said “but it went in my spam folder” and I was told “that doesn’t matter.” Very unfair!!Report

desiderio lopez guante
desiderio lopez guante
2 years ago

It happened to me a couple of days ago, and it happened to someone else I know. Report

Douglas W. Portmore
2 years ago

I sent out invitations to contribute to an anthology that I’m editing and about 5% of those ended up in people’s spam folders. I discovered this when I sent follow ups using a different email address with a different subject heading. It seems that invitations are particularly vulnerable to being misidentified as spam given that many so-called “invitations” are indeed spam. So, please check your spam folders periodically. Report

Ian
Ian
2 years ago

I’m a graduate student and currently 1/1 on referee requests being sent to my spam folder. I discovered it about a week after it had been sent, and I’ve been making sure to check my spam folder more frequently since. Report

Kenny Easwaran
2 years ago

A few years back I actually had two speaking invitations at department colloquia go to spam! I discovered it because someone at one institution sent me a Facebook message when I hadn’t replied after several weeks and a followup, and when I checked my spam folder I saw another there as well!

I don’t *think* this has happened since, but I’m always paranoid.Report

Matt
2 years ago

It’s a somewhat different but similar problem, but I have found out that people have tried to send messages about various opportunities to no longer working work email addresses for me. These particular (university) email addresses have the annoying features that they don’t support change-of-address messages, don’t set up forwarding, and also don’t bonce back – messages sent to them just go in to a black hole, never to return. I found out about the messages only when people mentioned them to me in person later. So, in addition to the “check your spam filter” moral, there might be a moral for the senders of messages, too – if you don’t hear back, try again, and also perhaps try another means of contact.Report

Eric Steinhart
2 years ago

Yes, I’ve had referee requests as well as invitations to submit to various legitimate books/journal issues go into my spam folder. Many times. I suspect it’s because these requests do often look like spam: they contain links to click, and the vast majority of the stuff I get from “journals” really *is* spam. I get at least one bogus journal thing every day. (Dear Esteemed Sir: Please to submit your most finest researches to our prestigious journal on Semiconductor Proteins.)Report

Jimbob
Jimbob
2 years ago

I manage academic journals for a living and I can say with confidence that this often gets in the way of us finding reviewers. I believe this is because there are a few elements of the invitation emails which jointly set off the spam filter’s alarm bells:

1. The emails are sent from a proxy server. This makes it convenient to send many emails out, but it looks dodgy to the spam filter because, presumably, this is what spammers also use.
2. The emails contain links to review. Interestingly enough on one of my journals the invitations to review are often not seen but the withdrawal of the invitation is. The difference between the two is that the former has links to register a response.
3. Attachments. The invitation to review may have the manuscript attached.
4. There may also be something dodgy-sounding about the wording. “We are inviting you because of your expertise in this area . . . please click to register your response”

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