Is there a solution for putting an end to fake and predatory conferences? (Cover Illustration by Ollanski)
Be a speaker. Serve on the organizing committee. Present your abstract. Sounds like traditional association conferences’ calls for subject matter experts. But it’s also how fake and predatory events reach out to students, academics, and professionals across a swath of industries. Providing little or no substance, these events — if they even take place at all — not only create confusion in the market, they siphon off the very same audiences legitimate events work so hard to attract and educate. What can be done?
If you trust the internet, you might expect to have a hard time finding a hotel room in Manchester this coming May. The city appears to be very busy that month in 2020, welcoming attendees for a range of conferences — the 3rd International Conference on Nuclear and High Energy Physics, the 2nd Global Congress & Expo on Biomaterials, the 4th International Conference on Women’s Health and Breast Cancer, and three more global gatherings. And if you were Anthony Cassidy, senior sales manager at the Manchester Convention Bureau, you would be giving yourself a high-five for winning such an impressive number of bids. There’s just one problem: Cassidy says those events are fictional.
“The website’s design is inconsistent and contains numerous broken links,” Cassidy wrote in a blog post on the convention bureau’s website, “9 Tips for Spotting Fake and Predatory Conferences,” after reviewing the URL for the 3rd International Conference on Nuclear and High Energy Physics. “In almost comical fashion, the website’s homepage proudly displays an image of Paris’ Louvre Museum as an attraction of Manchester — an obvious sign that all is not as it should be.”
As Cassidy points out in his post, these are not isolated examples of random scammers. “Fake meetings are not fake news,” he writes. “That is to say, fraudulent conferences exist, and they are becoming a real problem for the meetings industry.”
Senthil Gopinath, CEO of International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) agrees. “Tens of thousands of terrible quality and sometimes fraudulent conferences are today being promoted around the world, which presents an industrial-scale challenge to bonafide associations and their quality education
programs,” Gopinath told Convene. “It’s a global phenomenon, which today impacts negatively on almost every scientific discipline. These dodgy meetings are a real danger to our industry’s hard-won reputation.”
The websites that promote these events are littered with spam-sounding messages that veteran event organizers would instantly recognize as red flags — keyword-stuffed phrases, misspellings, and amateurly cropped images. Still, some predatory conference sites might give you pause. With themes like “Innovative Ideas and Approaches in Dental Science and Oral Healthcare,” their messaging sounds close enough to an overarching mission for an annual gathering to pass muster. What’s more, many appear to have decades-long histories.
More importantly, if you need further convincing of the veracity of an event in question, you’ll find that many of their websites include a most persuasive sales tool: a cast of veteran, established academics who have previously attended or served on the organizing committee.
For example, the website for the 4th Global Summit on Diabetes and Endocrinology — another event that Cassidy discovered was scheduled to be held in Manchester — offers a range of glowing testimonials about the value of the program and the city. According to the website, Jake Chen, DMC, MDS, Ph.D., FACD, professor and director of the Division of Oral Biology at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, “really enjoyed the conference and the city as well.” However, when Convene reached out to Chen, he called the testimonial and accompanying photograph “fake news.”
A Real — and ‘Shameful’ — Experience
There are plenty of other academics who have had their likenesses used in promotional materials without their consent. Rebecca Quine, events and exhibitions manager, Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), which has offices in the U.K., U.S., China, Germany, India, and Japan, told Convene that members’ names and photos are often displayed online as speakers or members of organizing committees without their knowledge to give a fake conference a sense of legitimacy. Quine, who estimates that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of fake conferences in the chemistry sector, tracks potentially illegitimate uses of members of the RSC community. “If we see one of our regular contributors’ photos on such a website, we will drop them a line to ask if they know,” Quine said. “Most of the time, they’re completely unaware that their name is being used to promote a fake event.”
It was a friend who alerted Graham Richards, a physical and theoretical chemistry professor at the University of Oxford, U.K., that a conference called iPharma was using his name and photo — as a member of the program’s organizing committee — to promote the event. He told Chemistry World, which is published by RSC, that he “went to the website and was flabbergasted that the front page was a picture of me welcoming everyone to this conference, which I’d never heard of before. It had my biography and a photo of my face.”
Richards sent a complaint through an online form, and the website removed him from the committee list. However, Richards told Convene, he received no communication from them. He has since warned other members of the academic community. “It is a pretty great widespread scam,” Richards said. “One has to be very careful.”
While Richards did not attend iPharma, Klara Valko, Ph.D., DSc, FRSC, director of the U.K.-based Bio-Mimetic Chromatography Consultancy, told Convene that she participated in the most recent edition of the conference, July 3–5, 2019. “I did not realize it was a predatory conference,” Valko said. “It sounded good.” And it was in London, near where she is based, so she didn’t need to pay for accommodations. “Some excellent speakers came from the U.S.,” she said, “and some of the exhibitors were there from France and Mexico.”
And while those individuals did indeed come to the conference, not many others did. In fact, there were “only four or five people in the audience,” Valko said, adding that the experience “was very shameful.” Her image now appears on the organizing committee page for the 2020 conference, which came as a surprise to her. (Convene sent email inquiries to individuals in charge of sponsorship and speaking opportunities at iPharma, scheduled for Aug. 5–7, 2020, but did not receive a response.)
It wasn’t Valko’s last encounter with this kind of event. She initially accepted an invitation to be part of the organizing committee for a meeting called Pharmaceutical Analysis & Analytical Chemistry, whose Facebook page reads: “After the fruitful execution of the International Conference on Pharmaceutical Analysis and Quality Control Strategies, Conference Series with great pride and honour announcing (sic) its 2nd International Conference on Pharmaceutical Analysis & Analytical Chemistry which is going to held (sic) in Chicago, USA during August 02-03, 2019.”
After she received an alert from an unknown source based in Canada that it was potentially a predatory conference, she backed out. “I asked them to remove my name from the organizing committee, but they did not do it,” Valko said. “They called me from Las Vegas at least 10 times [trying to persuade] me to participate.”
Its organizer, Conference Series LLC, is a subsidiary of OMICS International. Based in Hyderabad, India, the company’s website states that it organizes more than 3,000 conferences in the U.S., Europe, and Asia that “attract world-renowned personalities, scientists, entrepreneurs, budding scientists, students, and policy makers.” That’s in addition to publishing more than 700 journals that “strictly adhere to standard peer review process.” The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, however, found fault with that process. Earlier this year, a judge in Nevada handed down a $50.1 million judgment against OMICS for what the FTC called “deceptive claims to academics and researchers about the nature of their conferences and publications.”
OMICS is arguably the most well-known name in this web of predatory conferences, but it has plenty of company. James McCrostie, a professor in the department of business administration at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo, has gone undercover to get a sense of what happens when these conferences actually do take place. McCrostie told Convene that he sneaked into what he deemed a predatory conference at Tokyo’s Waseda University in 2015.
According to McCrostie, the event was organized by a Taiwanese organization called iBAC through a subsidiary called the International Academy Institute. Rather than one standalone event on a focused topic, McCrostie said that the event combined four different conferences covering completely different sectors into one event: the 3rd International Symposium on Economics and Social Science; the 3rd International Conference on Hospitality, Leisure, Sports, and Tourism; the 2nd International Conference on Engineering and Natural Science; and the Global Conference on Logistics, Transportation and Traffic. Though they cover widely divergent industries, for their organizers, the conferences have a common denominator: They are cash cows. “In total, there were 300 people from 16 countries,” McCrostie said. “Assuming everyone paid the early registration fee of $400, the event generated about $120,000 in revenue.”
While McCrostie considered the conference misleading, others may have had a good idea of what was in store for their on-site experience. When he received an initial email inviting him to speak at an international science conference in China, Adam Ruben, Ph.D., wrote in a 2016 article for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal Science, that he experienced “the thrill of being asked to present at a conference in a far-flung land. The talk is a feather in your cap, a line on your CV, and a free trip to an interesting place. It can be all too easy to dismiss those things that you know in your gut are suspicious for the possibility of career advancement and adventure.”
Ruben did not speak at that conference after corresponding with the organizers who wanted him to shell out $880, but McCrostie’s experience in Tokyo seems to reinforce that some participants are willing to sit through lackluster programming in exchange for a trip and bragging rights for being selected to speak somewhere.
“The overall impression I got judging from the absent presenters and presenters leaving early is many scholars were only there for the opportunity to travel to Tokyo,” McCrostie said. “The conference ended up so disorganized, the lunch so poor, and the disappointment to find out the conference was really four completely different topics combined together so great that it led one Taiwanese participant to make a website in Chinese warning others about the company. After a Taiwanese business magazine article about the company came out this year, the company appears to have shut down or changed names because their websites have shut down.”
Professors Are Top Prey
That business may have closed, but there are many others actively waiting to welcome attendees who are searching for the ego-boosting, career-advancing benefits of having their names listed on conference programs. And while professionals across all industries are seeking ways to advance their careers and would therefore seem likely targets for sketchy conferences, these enterprises seem to skew toward academia. Before questionable companies aimed to attract registration dollars from young researchers looking for full-time positions and adjunct professors working to land tenured jobs, they were working to entice them to pay to publish their work.
McCrostie thinks that predatory journals have laid the foundation for predatory conferences. “The pressure to publish or perish is crushing,” he said. “For most fields, when getting hired or promoted, publishing papers in journals is more important than presenting at a conference and publishing in the conference proceedings. This is why predatory publishers started before predatory conference organizers.”
Those publishers have flourished. An estimate from Cabells, a Texas-based analytics firm, pegs the number of questionable academic journals that falsely claim to use a peer-review process at around 8,700. While they offer the benefit of printing researchers’ names along with abstracts of their work, McCrostie pointed out that presenting that research live and face-to-face gives them even more of a leg up when competing for jobs. “Because the job market is so tight, young scholars are looking for any advantage to make their CVs stand out, which can lead to presenting at predatory conferences,” he said. “Furthermore, predatory conferences also typically funnel your paper to a predatory journal for an additional fee, so you can publish twice.”
Yes, predatory conferences make money by accepting payment for abstract submissions, but that practice alone doesn’t make them illegal. In fact, a veteran U.S.-based medical meeting professional — who preferred to remain anonymous in an effort to steer clear of any connection to the fraudulent conference landscape — reminded Convene that the same model has been used at legitimate conferences for decades. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with it,” he said. “People pay for the opportunity to be reviewed by their peers and advance their careers. It can be an important revenue source for professional organizations that work to provide valuable continuing education.”
What separates the legitimate conferences from the shady ones, however, is the acceptance rate. In many cases, predatory conferences accept 100 percent of submissions. Pay to submit, and there’s a spot waiting. The medical meeting planner said that this is where attendees need to exercise common sense. “You have to protect your own credit card,” he said. “You shouldn’t be handing it over to someone you don’t really know.”
Being extra cautious may seem like a logical step in a digital environment where hackers and online thieves commonly lurk, but McCrostie pointed to a reason why some academics may be willing to let their guards down. “Depending on the field, it can be difficult to get accepted to present at a real conference,” he said. “There are more people who want to present than there are spaces available. Predatory conferences allow anyone to speak after paying the fee.”
Closer To Home
McCrostie wanted to avoid making predatory conferences seem like a “developing world problem,” but he noted that “English can sometimes be an issue.” He added that it is “increasingly the main language used in the ivory tower. For scholars struggling with English, predatory conferences provide an international venue guaranteed to accept their proposal.”
But even in the U.S. where the English language is not an issue, predatory conferences are easy to find. When Linda Laskowski-Jones, MS, APRN, ACNS-BC, CEN, NEA-BC, FAWM, FAAN, editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed Nursing2019 journal, received an invitation “on behalf of Nursing 2017 Organizing Committee” to speak in New York, there were two red flags.
Besides missing the “the” before the committee name to make it grammatically correct, the bigger concern was that the conference name was the same as the journal name (Nursing2017 at that time), with only a space between “Nursing” and the year distinguishing the two. “Buyer beware,” she wrote in an editorial in the journal, “the difference between the real deal and the fake is often a single space or a single word.” When she went to the conference website for Nursing 2017 — where registration rates started at more than $1,100, although she could find no mention of CME credit — she wrote, it “looked deceptively similar to ours.”
Laskowski-Jones told Convene that the problem of predatory conferences and predatory journals has only grown worse in the two years since she received that invitation. She said she gets approximately 10 invitations each week to speak at what she deems illegitimate events. Those requests feel like obvious junk to her, but she has found that “a lot of people in academia — the ones who are most likely to present and publish — have the least knowledge about the issue.”
That may be simply because they are too busy to determine the validity of every invitation they receive to speak, serve on a committee, or submit an article for review. The “victims” among the Royal Society of Chemistry community, Quine said, “are researchers in academia or industry, whose time is at a premium and who may be limited to only attending one or two scientific meetings a year. Finding the time to investigate the legitimacy of an event is a luxury they simply don’t have, which is why people are still getting taken in.”
While zero- or low-value content and minimal networking connections put predatory conferences in an entirely different category than legitimate CME-earning opportunities, Laskowski-Jones said that they do represent real threats on the conference playing field. “There is real competition here,” she said. “I spent 36 years working in a hospital setting, and we have limited education budgets. A health-care professional could choose a predatory conference unknowingly, using a portion of that money and not getting any valuable education to maintain their license.”
Protecting the Industry
There seems to be no simple solution for putting an end to fake and predatory conferences. Cassidy said that it would be “difficult for a convention bureau to publicly ‘announce’ details of a predatory conference” because the process would most likely require additional legal advice, and it could create confusion around legitimate conferences. Any step that could lead to a courtroom is one that most organizations aim to avoid taking.
However, the U.S.-based medical meeting organizer said that he budgets approximately $100,000 in annual legal fees to fend off fraudulent actors in the housing space and the predatory conference landscape. Still, even when those attorneys manage to issue cease-and-desist letters and shut down websites, those organizers can easily set up new online homes to attract prospective attendees. “You can’t possibly buy a URL for every domain name they can come up with,” he said, comparing the prospect to a whack-a-mole arcade game. “Our best defense is education,” Laskowski-Jones said. “If you are not in the publishing and conference industry, you probably don’t know about this unless you become a victim.”
On the supplier side, ICCA — which on its website says it represents the “main specialists in handling, transporting, and accommodating international events” — maintains a list of what it says are predatory conference organizers to help its members determine whether to host certain pieces of business. The list, which is available only to ICCA members, currently contains close to 100 questionable conference organizers. Gopinath said that “ICCA members are urged to use it as a cross-reference, and then decide for themselves whether they want to enter into business arrangements with any of these companies.”
The decisions about whether to rent space and accept money from the questionable event organizers is up to the organization’s members, but ICCA refuses to associate with any of them, denying potentially illegitimate organizers access to the association database and refusing to count any of their meetings in its annual statistics reports.
In 2017, Laskowski-Jones joined forces with her peers in a collaborative, International Academy of Nursing Editors (INANE), with the goal of warning readers of their respective journals about shady conferences and academic journals. “We all banded together,” Laskowski-Jones said. “Whenever it fit in with our publication schedules, we did our best to inform our audiences.”
Laskowski-Jones thinks that the conference industry should make the predatory issue a top priority. “People should understand the risks,” she said. “And perhaps there is an opportunity to create some sort of seal of approval with a vetting process that can demonstrate the legitimacy of an organizer.”
For RSC members, Quine is working on a set of guidelines to help them spot potentially fake or predatory conferences. “We’ve had to start using phishing scam warnings online and in speaker communications, which is a shame because it detracts from the positive messaging on our sites,” she said. “But it means that our customers are gradually becoming more aware of the problem.”
Raising awareness has a ripple effect. “If conference organizers start taking steps towards proactively educating their communities about fake meetings and how to avoid them, we won’t just be protecting our businesses,” Quine said. “We’ll be protecting our customers too and generating goodwill and brand loyalty.”
As legitimate organizations work to generate goodwill, shady companies will likely continue to work to generate revenue. “This is a lucrative industry,” Laskowski-Jones said. “The biggest threat to the existence of these predatory companies is that people won’t attend or won’t submit their research. We should all look for opportunities to cut off the supply.”