10/13/2016 05:01 EDT | Updated 02/10/2017 10:30 EST

Predatory Conferences Undermine Science And Scam Academics

In our recent post, we wrote about predatory open access journals and the threat they pose to research and medical practice. Predatory OA journals are run by entrepreneurs (con artists, in our opinion) that have little or no scientific credibility, but publish "journals" which essentially print everything that is submitted to them, without any peer review or scrutiny, so long as they get paid.

The scary thing is that a predatory publisher now owns several Canadian medical journals, as revealed by investigations by CTV News and Toronto Star.

In this post, we hope to raise awareness about the growing menace of bogus conferences, organized by predatory publishers as well as specialized conference groups such as BIT Congress Inc, Conference Series Ltd, Event Series (both owned by OMICS International), PSC Conference and many others. These groups, often based out of China and India, run vanity conferences on nearly every conceivable topic. A cursory look at their websites is enough to understand the staggering breadth of topics they cover.

Scientific conferences serve as the catalyzer for intellectual interactions among researchers.

Jeffrey Beall, the librarian who maintains a black list of predatory publishers, also highlights predatory conferences on his helpful website. According to him, "there's a lot of money to be made in the scholarly-conference organizing business in Asia these days. These are not conferences organized by scholarly societies. Instead, they are conferences organized by revenue-seeking companies that want to exploit researchers' need to build their vitas with conference presentations and papers in the published proceedings or affiliated journals."

Importance of conference presentations in academia

As part of the career advancement process in academia, researchers must present evidence that their work has attained national and international reputation. An invitation to give a talk at a prestigious conference, therefore, means a lot in academia. Credible scientific conferences, typically organized by major professional societies and research agencies, will invite researchers to present because of the caliber and validity of their work as judged by the candidate's peers.

All academics, including us, generally accept such invitations and see it as an opportunity for scholarly exchanges in our fields. It is a great opportunity to present research in progress and to hear from colleagues who work in the same field and dealing with similar challenges. Scientific conferences serve as the catalyzer for intellectual interactions among researchers; they help us to come up with solutions to common problems and inspire new leads for scientific inquiry.

Rise of predatory, vanity conferences

Given the importance of conferences in academia, predatory conference organizers sensed a business opportunity and started scamming researchers a few years ago. They send adulatory emails inviting people to deliver keynote lectures in their "prestigious" international conferences in North America, Western Europe or exotic locations elsewhere (typically, Japan and China).

person speaking to empty room

Here is an example that one of us (EF) received: "OMICS Group has acknowledged you as a world class expert capable of providing deep insight into the latest developments in Radiology and Imaging." MP received this invitation recently from Conference Series: "Greetings! We would delight to welcome you on behalf of the Organizing Committee, as a Speaker to the CPD Accredited Event "3rd World Congress and Expo on Applied Microbiology" Going to be held in Dubai, UAE." These invitations have nothing to do with our expertise.

Indeed, we get tons of invitations to speak on topics that have nothing to do with our own area of research, from obstetrics to radiology, even economics! Apparently, anyone can have a speaking slot, or chair a session, or lecture on any topic they want! Many of these invitations offer the recipient the opportunity to chair an entire session in the conference. All submitted abstracts are usually accepted after a science-free, zero peer review process.

Typically, initial invitations are followed-up by increasingly frequent follow-up emails, even if we decline. It is nearly impossible to opt-out of these invitations. In any given day, emails from predatory journals and conferences may add to more than half of one's work-related inbox.

Unwary researchers fall prey to these seemingly "prestigious" speaking opportunities and pay the high registration fee to attend, as well as the high cost of travel and lodging. These conferences make money through registration fees that are bundled with charges for hotel, meals, program materials, ground transportation and other hidden charges (e.g. sight seeing tours).

Sadly, predatory conferences have become "a cottage industry in scientific communication."

The enhanced "prestige" that comes from accepting an invitation to chair a session frequently adds an extra amount to the conference registration fee that has to be paid. Researchers who fall for these scams show up at sparsely attended events, and realize that the conference is not at all what they expected and has no prominent speakers from whom they could learn. Worse yet, they realize that the high profile names that seemed to be part of the organizing committee as displayed in the conference website were never there.

This is a common trick by the predatory conference organizers: they hijack from the Internet the photos and biographies of scientists who have established reputation and credibility (sometimes Nobel Prize winners). These names serve as baits to attract registrations. When the person whose identity was hijacked complains, nothing happens. These dishonest conference organizers will ignore cease-and-desist letters.

We are aware of several cases of colleagues (including our own experience) who were targeted to have their picture and biosketches associated with these pseudo-scientific events that only serve to collect the hard-earned research or salary money from junior researchers in developing countries.

Sadly, predatory conferences have become "a cottage industry in scientific communication." Between predatory journals and predatory conferences, academics are now being spammed on a daily basis, by greedy groups that neither understand science, nor care about advancing science. We fear this alarming rise of predatory journals and conferences will not only undermine science, but also scam academics, particularly junior researchers who can least afford it.

Madhukar Pai is a Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University, Montreal. He is the Director of McGill Global Health Programs, and the Associate Director of McGill International Tuberculosis Centre. (@paimadhu)

Eduardo L. Franco, is a James McGill Professor and Chairman, Gerald Bronfman Department of Oncology, McGill University. He is also the Director of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology at McGill University.

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