Predatory conferences – A case of academic cannibalism
Competition between predatory companies has become so fierce that even smaller cities have become targets. There are even conference alert websites devoted entirely to promoting predatory events.
The sheer number of predatory conferences, sometimes called questionable conferences, combined with the increasing sophistication of the organising companies, means any unknown conference should be viewed as predatory until proven otherwise.
What is a predatory conference?
To be classified as predatory, the conference organiser needs to meet three criteria: the organiser holds low quality academic meetings for the primary aim of making money – not supporting scholarship; there is no effective peer review, allowing anyone to purchase a speaking slot; and the organiser employs deceit, the most common forms being false claims of peer review, hiding the company headquarters’ true location and concealing the for-profit nature of the company.
With a few exceptions, this article will avoid naming specific predatory conference organisers for two reasons. First, many companies closely follow what is written about them and quickly make cosmetic changes to their websites in an attempt to escape the predatory label. Second, companies frequently change names or rebrand their conferences.
For example, OMICS International, currently being sued by the United Sates Federal Trade Commission for deceptive trade practices, organises conferences under at least four different brands, including: Conference Series, Pulsus Group, EuroSciCon and Life Science Events.
Some predatory organisers started out as predatory publishers and expanded into conferences. Others focus exclusively on conference organising, although they may also funnel papers to predatory publishers.
University faculty members own some of the slickest predatory conference companies and manage to convince other academics to join their organisational boards.
Many, but by no means all, predatory companies are based in Asia, including China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia and Taiwan. However, more developed countries including Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States also have multiple predatory conference companies.
Too many academics think predatory conferences are not worth worrying about, especially if their research field places less importance on conference presentations and proceedings publications compared to journal publications.
Nevertheless, predatory conferences do threaten the foundations of the ivory tower. Lacking real peer review, they allow anyone to present and publish poor, plagiarised or phony research. At predatory conferences, the United Nations created AIDS to reduce the world’s population and global warming does not exist.
Predatory conferences typically combine several conferences together in a single hotel conference room, forcing attendees to listen to presentations on topics outside their field and tricking well-intentioned but ignorant academics into participating and wasting their limited research budgets and time. Their honest efforts may also be tainted by appearing alongside nonsense papers in the conference proceedings.
Furthermore, as predatory conference organisers have grown, they have been buying legitimate publishers and conference organisers, blurring the line between predatory and legitimate. Scholarly societies that rely on their annual conference for funds can also find themselves competing with the ever-increasing number of predatory events.
The enemy is us
The main reason predatory conferences have become such a big problem is that researchers and institutions are doing basically nothing to address the problem.
Little action is taken to warn researchers or universities about the danger, and even less to punish those who present at, or help organise, the events.
The notion that only young or developing world researchers get tricked into attending provides one excuse for inaction. In reality, scholars from Western universities regularly present at, and help organise, predatory conferences.
Blinded by the excitement of receiving an invitation to deliver a keynote speech, too many overlook red flags out of ignorance. Unfortunately, others knowingly participate. Researchers in countries or fields that place emphasis on conference presentations purposely use predatory conferences to pad their CVs to win university jobs and promotions.
Connections between predatory conference organisers and predatory publishers are common, with conference papers accepted for publication in predatory journals for an additional fee. Unfortunately, many researchers view such publication opportunities as a bonus rather than a problem.
Disturbingly, during my research, it has been incredibly rare for any of the academics involved with predatory conferences to admit wrongdoing, either on their part or by the company. Even when faced with evidence such as faked peer review, hidden for-profit companies and stolen identities, the researchers involved have refused to distance themselves.
Instead, current and former employees, feeling disgusted by the actions of their companies, have proven to be the most valuable source of information on predatory organisers. Universities throughout the developed world regularly host predatory conferences, their desire to rent out conference rooms seemingly outweighing any risk to their reputation.
For example, at the end of September 2016, I notified Clare College at the University of Cambridge that the predatory conference organiser, the American Society for Research or ASR, was scheduled to hold its International Conference on Educational and Information Technology or ICEIT at their institution in March 2017.
I pointed out that while the ASR claimed to be a non-profit, it was registered as a for-profit company and its headquarters was based in China. I also warned that one of its conferences had previously accepted a machine-generated nonsense SCIgen paper that I submitted and that the owners could be linked to at least eight other predatory publishers and conference companies.
Forcing the company to remove the college logo from the conference website proved to be the strongest action the college’s conference administrator took. Renamed “the Asia Society of Researchers” after being exposed in a newspaper article, the March 2018 ICEIT was scheduled to be held at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford.
Far too many researchers view the plethora of predatory conferences as opportunities to spend research funds on junkets. There is a reason so many predatory conferences take place in locations like Bali, Miami and Hawaii.
After a presentation on the topic that I held at a conference in Japan, an attendee complained bitterly to me that I risked ruining the party for everyone. The ‘party’ being the ability to travel someplace warm every winter using research funds.
At the predatory conferences I attended in Tokyo, I found it rare for presenters to stay after finishing their own presentations. Exiting with family members carrying guidebooks suggested they had important data collection duties to perform at Tokyo Disneyland.
What can be done?
There is no magic answer. University faculty, graduate students and administrators all need more education about the dangers of predatory conferences.
Those making an honest mistake and accidentally presenting at a predatory conference need to warn colleagues and the wider academic community. Universities need to take greater steps to avoid hosting predatory conferences and to start refusing to hire, promote or give funding to researchers attending and doing the organising.
James McCrostie is a professor in the department of business administration, Daito Bunka University, Tokyo, Japan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.