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The Complexity of The Questionable: Fighting the battle against ‘predatory conferences’

Having been introduced to the meetings industry just three years ago, I have come to learn many interesting and exciting things, one of them being questionable conferences, organisers and journals.
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Having been introduced to the meetings industry just three years ago, I have come to learn many interesting and exciting things, one of them being questionable conferences, organisers and journals. In my line of work, I spend a lot of time investigating web resources online and what surprises me the most about this phenomenon is how it continues to flourish and why it is so difficult to suppress.

These conferences and journals are driven by the same motivation: profit. They prey on the naïve and/or desperate, hence why some have been called ‘predatory’ and some are called ‘parasitic’. While several people might benefit from these conferences in a way, others can be left feeling weakened from the experience.

A delegate can be scammed of their money, time and resources in attending a conference that does not exist. Even if the conference does exist, it does not deliver the quality or value that was promised. Conferences such as these lack rigorous academic standards and are often poorly organised. Academics attend conferences not only to share and discuss findings but to network with like-minded colleagues. But because they lack structure and proper organisation, these questionable conferences often do not provide such opportunities.

Reputational damage

Having a list of predatory conferences and illegitimate journals on a scholar’s resume can tarnish their reputation and credibility. This can be severely damaging, especially if the scholar was an unknowing, inexperienced victim with no knowledge of predatory organisers.

Profit over academic progress

Ideally papers are peer-reviewed and, when accepted, circulated within academic circles. Afterwards, there is a lot of back-and-forth between the author and reviewer since corrections are expected. But predatory organisers are indifferent to the quality of papers submitted and have little concern for their content, as long as you pay your ‘publishing fee’.

In reality, peer reviews are a rigorous, systematic process that take time to complete. Elsevier, one of the most renowned publishing companies, states in their peer review policy that a manuscript is typically reviewed within 80 days. When submitting papers to be reviewed by questionable organisers, one’s paper can be accepted within a week or two hours of submission for example, with no mention of corrections.

Upon investigating the phenomenon, journalist Tom Spears submitted a bogus lecture proposal titled “The Biomechanics of How Pigs Fly” for a conference. The organizer accepted it, claiming that the lecture had passed peer review, and asked him to pay a $999 conference fee.

For academics who simply want to add credentials to their resume, they can take advantage of these questionable conferences and journals to legitimise their studies as notable research and thus elevate their reputation. When scholars are given an open access platform without a gatekeeper to review ‘studies’ of unproven results and contradicting theories, this is the type of setback that damages intellectual advancement on the largest scale. For some, money is not an issue once they can secure grants or sponsorships from their universities.

Are these conferences beneficial to anyone at all? Few researchers say so. When attending conferences that are a mixture of different studies, some appreciate the broadness as they get a chance to be exposed to other disciplines. Sometimes the location of the venue is just convenient more than anything else, as it could be in the same city or country and the researcher does not have to travel far.

Legitimate business?

Regardless of their quality, these types of conferences bring business to the local hosts and venues, such as hotels and conference centres. Hoteliers do not distinguish the quality of these academic conferences since it might be outside their expertise, and when participants choose to spend extra nights at the hotel, it is considered a bonus. At the end of the day, they served as a venue for a gathering of people. From the perspective of a venue, as long as the organisers pay for the services provided, the business is legitimate.

Questionable conference organizers and journals have been around for years. Especially in the era of modern information technology, their notoriety should be widespread, and most academics should know by now to stay clear of them, right? So then begs the question: How are they still thriving?

Exploitation of pressure on academics

The organisers are companies who have struck oil in the mine of academic conferences and who have nurtured the demand for it. Scholars of all levels are pressured into publishing their work to progress academically and professionally. Scholars who know or at least have suspicions that these conferences might not be legitimate but attend anyway are part of the problem. Most are pressured to fulfill quotas as set by their universities to attend a certain number of conferences and present papers to graduate. While credible conferences are not necessarily more expensive, they might not be convenient time and travel-wise, so these contributors feel like they do not have many options. A significant percentage of the victims are usually very eager to gain publishing experience, unaware of this ‘predatory’ phenomenon.

When venues understand that most of these conference organisers are fraudulent and how their unethical practices can garner infamy and tarnish their professional reputations, perhaps then they would not be so willing to accommodate future organisers. But comparatively speaking, awareness is still lacking and ‘predatory’ organisers are getting smarter, especially with the advancement of the internet. Academics and experts are often surprised to find their names listed on event websites when they have never even heard of the conference before.

"Identify theft"

Some companies are even replicating names of legitimate conferences for the chance to sway delegates, mistaking their events for the real deal. This streak of blatant identity theft has not gone unnoticed. The original conference organisers have no choice but to advertise on their event websites and warn delegates of the imposters. The World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, or WASET, and OMICS Group are two publishers well-known for replicating or using similar names of legitimate conferences. Their modus operandi also includes scheduling hundreds of conferences for the same location on the same day and using the names of scientists as journal editors or conference speakers without their knowledge. The original conference organisers not only have copycats to deal with, but it is their names and reputations at stake when delegates are not aware these imposters exist.

Spreading awareness of 'predatory' conferences

Many have tried standing up to these ‘questionables’ but the outcome of these efforts often prove more devastating than fruitful. Even after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against OMICS Group for alleged deceiving practices in 2016, it is still operating to this day. Jeffrey Beal, a librarian who was one of the first to speak against and coin the term “predatory meetings”, had compiled a list of organisers and journals on a blog to warn others of their malpractices. Years later, Beal’s blog was “forced to shut down due to threats and politics" as he had garnered criticism for his claims and was a particular target of OMICS, which he described as "the worst of the worst".

Though it is difficult to see any big, official steps being taken against predatory conferences and journals, significant effort can be seen in the world of academia. Researchers continue to write, warn and spread awareness. Countless articles and blog posts have been written, retelling personal experiences with questionable organisers, and there are numerous guides online teaching others how to spot the ‘red flags’. Academics who have spent time and effort researching these ‘predators’ are invited to speak about them, sparking conversations and spreading awareness through word of mouth.

According to James McCrostie, a professor who has done his part in writing against ‘predatory’ conferences, wrote:

“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.”

How we do spot the ‘red flags’?

But thanks to today’s technology and resources, the number of questionable conferences and journals have outnumbered the legitimate. With this ‘predatory’ phenomenon growing at such an exponential rate, is there nothing we can do to stop it? There is no single answer. Not only do we need more education and awareness spread on the matter, but support from all fronts are integral. The academic community cannot do this alone. They would need the support of the professional industry, the venues and even government and non-profit bodies to combat a phenomenon as huge as this one.

One of our responsibilities as a researcher is updating an extensive database of international association meetings and their event details. We collect such data, verify, and compile it into a statistics report every year. Verifying these meetings, distinguishing the legitimate from the ‘predatory’, has already become standard practice for researchers. Though we have garnered much experience and have been trained how to spot the ‘red flags’, as technology progresses, so do the challenges. And the fine line has become more blurred with time.

There is only so much we can verify from one side of the screen. We do our best and check every resource available to ensure that the information we include brings value to all who use it. We have made substantial effort to watch out for the infamous by compiling a blacklist of questionable conference names, websites, organisers and journals. We are also able to inform our members of the ‘predatory’ phenomenon with the help of the blacklist and educational sessions at our events. We might not be able to stop the production of these questionables but we continue to try, spreading awareness and warning others of their danger. For the only time a battle is lost is when we stop trying.

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