Predatory Conferences: How to Avoid Being Scammed
In October 2016, The Guardian wrote about Christoph Bartneck. Dr. Bartneck is an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who received an invitation to submit a paper to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics.
However, since Dr. Bartneck had “practically no knowledge of nuclear physics,” he decided to test the legitimacy of the offer by using the iOS autocomplete feature to write the paper.
“The text really does not make any sense,” he said.
He titled the paper “Atomic Energy will have been made available to a single source” (again using autocomplete), and submitted it for peer review under the fake name of Iris Pear, Ph.D. Three hours later, he received an email notifying him that the paper was accepted. All he needed to confirm an “oral presentation” slot was to pay $1099.
Something similar occurred in November 2014, when the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology received a research paper titled “Get me off Your (expletive) Mailing List.” The body of the paper was that phrase repeated again and again.
The paper was accepted… one can only assume that the request for removal was not.
In both cases, the predatory practices were identified and used against these organizations. Yet, every year, hundreds of people are not so fortunate.
Intro to Predatory Conferences
Predatory conferences are not exactly “phony” conferences, because, in most cases, an actual event takes place. It’s just not one that’s worth your time.
In a PCMA article, Klara Valko, Director of Bio-Mimetic Chromatography Consultancy, described her experience attending a predatory conference. She said that initially, the conference “sounded good,” however, “there were only four or five people in the audience.” Overall, she said the experience “was very shameful.”
Predatory conferences are an offshoot of the predatory publishing business, where academics pay to have papers published in “industry” journals that do not provide much if any editorial support.
Predatory conferences often claim to be non-profit affairs while actually being run by for-profit organizations. These events are not concerned with securing attendees or providing an educational experience for anyone who does show up. Instead, the conferences focus on presenters, charging significant sums to guarantee speaking positions. The goal is to make speakers believing they are boosting their resumes.
About 10 years ago, predatory conferences were a minor annoyance. However, a recent study found that predatory conferences “now outnumber official scholarly events.”
To be considered predatory, a conference needs to meet three conditions. The first is an emphasis on high fees, especially for presenters. Second is a lack of peer review, meaning anyone can purchase a speaking slot. Third is false advertising; there is often a promise of a peer review or keynote speakers and board members who are not affiliated with the meeting and never permitted the use of their names and likeness.
How to Spot a Predatory Conference
Predatory conferences have become rather sophisticated at avoiding detection. Once one is identified, the organizer will typically revise the title, so an alert doesn’t show up when someone researches the conference.
However, there are some telltale signs that most predatory conferences share.
Pay to Play
If a conference asks you to pay more for a speaking position than you typically would to attend a conference, that’s a significant indication of a predatory conference. In fact, the fee for most of these conferences is much higher than the industry standard.
Also, this fee is only revealed after someone is “accepted” as a speaker. Unknown and little-known conferences asking for exorbitant speaker rates should always raise suspicions.
An Extremely Wide Scope
Predatory conferences want to appeal to as many speakers as possible. As a result, they rarely have a specific theme. Instead, the organizers provide a broad industry description, so no potential candidate is alienated.
One term that frequently appears in predatory conference descriptions is “interdisciplinary.” This catch-all phrase is a way for organizers to avoid declaring a specialty for the event.
An Elaborate Title (That Says a Lot While Saying Nothing)
The 3rd International Conference on Nuclear and High Energy Physics. The 2nd Global Congress and Expo on Biomaterials. The 4th Global Summit on Diabetes and Endocrinology. Innovative Ideas and Approaches in Dental Science and Oral Healthcare.
These long, official-sounding titles lull you into compliancy by volume alone. They also illustrate the previous point of a broad, all-encompassing scope. When searching for possible scams, look for the terms “international” and “global,” which are used to build intercontinental credibility, and see if they are used to describe a mainly regional conference.
Multiples of the Same Conference
Organizers of predatory conferences will often hold several versions of the same conference in cities around the globe. This practice, which could occur throughout a year or around the same time, helps maximize the show’s profits.
The Event’s Name is Similar to Another Conference
It’s a common practice for low-budget movie studios to release films with similar titles as blockbuster releases in the hope of profiting from audience confusion. For example, in 2011, when Marvel Studios released “Thor,” The Asylum studio put out the zero-budget film “Almighty Thor.”
Some predatory conferences operate using the same principle by giving meetings names that are similar to established conferences. A quick online search should bring up conferences with similar names. If one is well-known with significant bona fides, it should be easy to spot.
Another possibility is that the predatory conference recently changed its name because word got out about the previous moniker. Any time multiple conferences with similar names pop up in a search, it should raise an alarm.
High-Profile Names Sponsoring Low-Profile Events
Predatory conferences will go to great lengths to appear legitimate. This includes using the names of established organizations and people without getting permission to do so. These names may be listed as board members or as members of the organizing committee. The conferences may even go so far as to include a picture and biographical information about people who have no connection with the show whatsoever.
Whenever you notice a disparity between a conference and the names of its sponsors, that should cause you to question its legitimacy. It is rare, for example, for a large pharmaceutical company to attach its name to a small medical conference. Should that occur, it is usually for a significant reason and is big news.
The Organizers Are Difficult to Contact
If it is difficult to locate the organizers’ contact information on the event website, that is immediately suspicious. Another sign is if the organizers have free email addresses instead of something that is attached to a certified association. Most academic professionals will have an email that ends in .edu (however, this is not always the case). Listing a P.O. box instead of a permanent address is also suspicious.
Also, while searching for the contact information, peruse the event website carefully. If you notice several spelling and grammatical errors or if the syntax is a little strange, that’s a good indication of a problem with the event. Conferences that want attendees need to make an excellent first impression with the event website.
Don’t take the conference’s location as a guaranteed sign of legitimacy. Predatory conferences have been held on the campuses of venerated institutions. Colleges and universities, even well-regarded ones, need to generate income by renting conference space. It is likely that the person in charge of leasing that space has minimal contact with the educational departments and is just as susceptible to being fooled by a scam conference as anyone else.
When considering any speaking engagement, always carefully research every conference. Just know that having a list of predatory conferences on a resume is not going to impress anyone at a legitimate event. Pay attention to the signs, and avoid falling for a scam.