Media probes raise questions over quality of conferences

Researchers and academics at some of South Korea’s top universities have used their university’s research funds to attend academically questionable international conferences and submit their conference reports as examples of internationally excellent journal publications to the national research database, undercover journalists and an international media investigation have found.

Among the South Korean academics attending science conferences of questionable academic quality – or ‘predatory’ as some have been dubbed by academics – were individuals from its top universities, including its prestigious Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University, collectively known as SKY, as well as other top national universities.

The Seoul-based Korea Center for Investigative Journalism KCIJ-Newstapa team carried out a sting operation – attending one of the conferences posing as academic researchers – and found an unusually large number of South Koreans had attended conferences whose academic status has been questioned, organised by two pseudo-academic societies, World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology (WASET) and OMICS. Some scholars subsequently claimed the expenses from the research funds at their universities.

Some 4,230 professors, researchers and graduate students from 272 Korean institutions were found to have attended WASET conferences since 2007, with a huge rise in the number of Korean attendees from 2014 onwards.

The South Korean government conducted a survey after the initial July findings by Newstapa and found more than 1,300 researchers attended academic conferences hosted by WASET and OMICS since 2014, releasing details earlier this month. Some 180 attended more than once. Of the 268 institutions surveyed by the government, 108 – or 40% – participated in academically questionable conferences.

Seoul National University topped the list with 97 attendances – 70 to WASET conferences and 27 to OMICS, followed by Yonsei University with 91. Others included KAIST with 46 attendances, and Kookmin University with 42. Other top universities such as Sungkyunkwan University, Hanyang University and Korea University came high on the separate list that stretched back to 2007.

A wider investigation conducted this year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), involving 23 news organisations across 18 countries, found the conferences run by WASET, which itself is based in Turkey, had little or no academic value and typically feature presentations from a range of unrelated disciplines.

Listed as international journal article

The National Science and Technology Information Service (NTIS) – the research database run by the National Research Foundation of Korea – lists many papers professors and researchers submitted to WASET conferences as international journal submissions, with more than 2,000 such submissions listed on NTIS.

The database records trawled by Newstapa also reveal that 109 out of 264 WASET conference-related articles were registered as Science Citation Index papers.

The number of Science Citation Index papers published by individual academics is used as a measure of excellence by the government to evaluate university research capacity, a point that did not escape the attention of the Korean parliament’s education and culture committee, which noted that false achievements being registered in this way could “shake the foundation of the national R&D system”.

A National Research Foundation official clarified that “proceedings of a conference are not regular journals, and should not be entered [in the database] as a journal article”.

Independently commenting on the findings, Sogang University Chemistry Professor Lee Deok-hwan told Newstapa: “These organisations are beyond being for-profit or commercialised. They basically aim to rip off those researchers who are academically poor.

“What’s more worrisome is that this phenomenon is highly likely to damage the so-called research evaluation policy,” Lee said, referring to the system of evaluating research for the purpose of promotion and tenure, as such conference records are submitted by some researchers towards their records for promotion and reappointment.

Nonetheless some Korean scholars said they were unaware that WASET was regarded as a problem organisation.

So-called ‘predatory publishing’ – where journals of dubious quality charge large sums to researchers to publish their papers – often with no editing or feedback, has been known for some years, with the problem of ‘predatory conferences’, where academics and researchers are charged a participation fee for presenting sometimes low-quality research, emerging later.

Sting operation in Venice

The conferences are often held in attractive tourist destinations around the world. “Koreans are among the most frequent attendees,” the Newstapa team said, with some academics attending multiple times.

Newstapa held a sting operation, with its news team attending a WASET conference in Venice in June posing as academics. They paid a €500 (US$587) per person registration fee.

“We first generated a fake research paper using a programme called SCIgen, an automatic thesis generator built by MIT students, and submitted it to one of WASET’s conferences,” said Kim Yongjin, Newstapa’s editor-in-chief, in a more detailed documentary released by ICIJ this month after some preliminary findings were released in July.

“The [MIT] programme is designed to make papers with random texts available online in a format that looks like a normal research article,” Kim said. The paper was uploaded to a WASET conference website. “Four days later it was accepted,” he says.

In Venice, the team was surprised to find that only a dozen people were attending what was billed as an international conference. “The range of themes was broad, some [themes] were not even identifiable,” the Korean news organisation said. But what was unusual was that even among such a limited attendance there were several other South Korean academics and researchers.

“The number of Koreans at such conferences is exceptionally high,” noted the news team. After subsequent scraping of the WASET website they found 10 South Korean academics and researchers attended a WASET-organised conference in London in January this year, including five graduate students from Ewha Womans University, a prestigious institution in Seoul.

Universities’ response

One of the Ewha students told Newstapa they received financial support from the university for their travel, accommodation and conference participation fees. Newstapa digging found that the funding came from Brain Korea 21, a government research grant programme specifically designed to foster young scholars.

Ewha Womans University told the news programme that it regarded the students’ WASET experience highly, because it gave their students experience writing and presenting in English at an international conference.

In a statement to the programme, Seoul National University, whose scholars and researchers made 100 submissions to WASET conferences, said it was “unreasonable” to call WASET conferences fake or a scam “because presentations actually take place”.

Yonsei University with 87 submissions to WASET, said in a statement that it had concluded that WASET was “not a predatory conference” because “globally renowned institutions also attended the conference that Yonsei students attended”.

Seokho Yoon, professor of information and communication engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, acknowledged that WASET journals and conferences were of poor quality but said they provided his graduate students with the opportunity to present at an international conference and boost their self-confidence.

However, in a university statement, Sungkyunkwan University said it would find a way to verify such organisations before its professors or students submit a paper or do a presentation.

But some regretted attending. Ha Tae-Kwon a professor of mechanical engineering at Gangneung-Wonju National University, said: “I felt uneasy as a scholar to keep participating at a conference at which quality was declining”, and said he would only aim to submit to major journals, even if it meant going to international conferences less frequently.

Many dubious conferences

The Venice event was just one of hundreds of scientific conferences held by WASET every year, attracting professors at renowned universities and students. “Their motives range from career advances to meeting deadlines for [submitting] research expenses, or simply travelling to exotic destinations at their universities’ expense,” Newstapa’s Kim said.

According to the wider ICIJ investigation, WASET hosts more than 5,000 events around the world annually with calls for submissions, and publishes hundreds of papers in its online ‘journals’.

The news team alleges that another organiser, OMICS, operates similarly to WASET and attracted submissions from more than 1,800 scholars from 177 institutions in South Korea in recent years, which included 50 from Seoul National University, 34 from Yonsei University and 21 from Korea University. From a handful in 2014, the number increased sharply to 126 in 2015, 105 in 2016 and 120 in 2017.

The United States Federal Trade Commission filed a suit against OMICS’ US subsidiary in 2016, allegedly for “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications”. They also advertise international conferences for scientists and medical professionals.

The Federal Trade Commission issued an injunction last year against OMICS, claiming OMICS made misleading claims. The commission also alleges that, to promote their scientific conferences, the defendants had deceptively used the names of prominent researchers as conference presenters, when in fact many of those researchers had not agreed to participate in the events.

Im Cheog-Kyu, head of the research funds settlement team at the National Research Foundation of Korea, which oversees and audits government research grants, said: “In the application review process, peer reviewers evaluate whether a conference is an appropriate, legitimate one to go to or not, and then they make a final decision.”

The Korean government has said that “intentionally and repeatedly” participating in fake academic conferences could lead to research misconduct and has said it would announce penalties by the end of the year, including possible disciplinary action and the return of research funds. Since the July revelations, it has set up a special committee of universities and research institutes to look into such matters.

South Korea is not the only country sending scholars to WASET conferences. India, the United States, Malaysia and France have sent more than 5,000 attendees each. Iran, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Taiwan and China are also among the top 10 countries.

A WASET spokesperson, speaking to The Guardian newspaper from the UK, denied that the company operated as a ‘predatory’ publisher and said its conferences were for pre-review manuscripts and that following conferences “those manuscripts meeting the publication standards are published 10 days after the event date”.

WASET and OMICS did not respond to emails from University World News’s correspondent requesting comment.