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Poor-quality, predatory conferences prey on academics

“When we noticed that people were using university or grant money for these conferences, we had to put a stop to it,” said one department chair.

By ALEX GILLIS | MAR 05 2018

Many publishers of deceptive or poor-quality academic journals have created a big sideline business organizing equally questionable academic conferences. Yet some professors don’t seem to be getting the message to stay away.

McGill University professor Eduardo Franco discovered last year, to his dismay, that OMICS International, one of these publishers, listed 220 McGill professors whom the company claimed had served as “editors, contributors and speakers” for OMICS journals and conferences. Dr. Franco, who is the James McGill Professor in the departments of oncology, and epidemiology and biostatistics, said OMICS organizes some 3,000 conferences of questionable quality and publishes about 700 journals, many of which are considered “predatory” – a term first coined by librarian Jeffrey Beall at the University of Colorado Denver. Mr. Beall had created a much-used online list of bogus journals which he claims he had to take down last year due to harassment from predatory publishers.

Most of the 220 McGill professors listed on the OMICS site likely had nothing to do with the company and didn’t know that the company was using their names in this way, said Dr. Franco. Still, he was concerned.

“It was getting out of hand,” he said. “Some of our junior faculty and respected senior professors attended these conferences because they thought they were bona fide, but once they got there, they realized how small and Mickey Mouse they were.”

Many academics have likely received spam emails – complete with vague promises, and glaring spelling and grammar mistakes – for bogus conferences. Organizers of predatory conferences claim to properly peer review conference speakers and papers, but attendees may arrive at a venue only to discover that this isn’t true and, worse, that the event contains bizarre or irrelevant topics and has few or no conference staff on site.

Last fall, Tom Spears, a journalist who writes for the Ottawa Citizen, submitted a made-up conference lecture proposal about “the biomechanics of how pigs fly” for a conference – and the conference organizer accepted it, claiming that the lecture had passed peer review. They asked him to pay a $999 conference fee.

This global trend would be funny if it weren’t tainting careers, contaminating research and draining universities of their conference funds. In the spring of 2017, Dr. Franco said as much during a meeting of McGill’s faculty of medicine, where he projected on a screen the names of the 220 McGill professors listed on the OMICS site.

Sitting in the room were about 50 academics, including the faculty’s dean and about three dozen faculty chairs, associate deans and vice-deans. Most of those on the list weren’t in the room, but colleagues recognized their names.

“People were very upset,” said Dr. Franco. “Medicine is a major topic of these vanity conferences. My point was to show that the companies were using our names to advertise their wares.

“Some of these companies even secure continuing professional development accreditation in various countries for their conferences, which gives them a veil of credibility,” he added. “I don’t understand how they manage to do that. CPD accreditation requires a well-designed program with details on the content.”

As a department chair, one of Dr. Franco’s roles is to oversee academic promotion. This includes reading every CV submitted to his department and reviewing professors’ annual reports, so he’s alerted his faculty, in memos in 2014 and 2017, to be careful. “As chair, I saw our academics put these events in their annual reports and CVs. When we noticed that people were using university or grant money for these conferences, we had to put a stop to it.”

In spring 2017, he told his colleagues in the room: “You should resign from roles with these companies if you’re part of their editorial boards
or conference groups. You don’t want to associate your name and McGill’s name with a racket.”

But the names and bios of the McGill academics are still on the OMICS website. And, in fact, the number has risen to 257 as of early February 2018, despite many of the professors having reportedly demanded that their names be removed.

The problem doesn’t involve only McGill. OMICS claims that 314 scholars from the University of Toronto, 253 from York University, 182 from the University of Alberta, 59 from Dalhousie University and 38 from Concordia University, to name just a few, are OMICS editors, contributors and speakers.

OMICS’ owner Srinubabu Gedela and his staff are based in Hyderabad, India. Last November, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission won an injunction to prohibit OMICS from making misrepresentations about conferences and scholars. However, “the FTC injunction had no result whatsoever,” Dr. Franco said. “Nothing is being done to stop OMICS and predatory conferences.”

The company is only one of many predatory conference organizers who use various aliases, said Dr. Franco. He has compiled a list of more than 40. “I’d venture to say there are 10 times more vanity conferences than real, professional ones,” he said.

Padding their CVs

Why are academics getting duped? Lucy Lee, dean of science at the University of the Fraser Valley and current president of the Canadian Council of Deans of Science, explained: “They’re either young, inexperienced academics who are unaware or who want to move fast to climb the academic ladder, or they’re older academics who know better but pad their CVs with these questionable conferences so that they look professionally active.”

Some faculty may use these conferences “as an excuse to visit home if the conferences are held in their countries of origin, or they take a vacation to exotic locales using the conference as a pretext,” Dr. Lee added. “This is understandable if they attend, contribute to and participate in valid conferences, but it’s wrong if it’s a cover-up for leisure travel. Many universities provide annual travel funds for faculty to participate in professional meetings, and deans need to be watchful that these funds are used justifiably. Some faculty feel that they’re attending legitimate conferences, albeit mediocre ones, and it’s our job to point out irregularities and to dissuade them if attendance is inappropriate.” As deans, she continued, “we need to uphold the public trust.”

Last year, Cabells International, a U.S.-based publishing services company, launched a subscription-only blacklist of 5,000 deceptive journals, building on the work of Mr. Beall. The company also wanted to track predatory conferences, but discovered the job was too labour-intensive. “The names of the conferences change from year to year,” said Kathleen Berryman, senior project manager at Cabells. “But a lot of the same criteria for judging the legitimacy of journals apply to conferences, like whether or not they’re doing peer reviews and that kind of thing.”

In a new development, predatory publishers are also now using legitimate Canadian publishers as fronts to push their conferences. In 2016, OMICS bought the Pulsus Group and Andrew John Publishing, both of which once ran dozens of legitimate academic publications. Pulsus now publicizes dozens of sham conferences, including several scheduled for Canada in 2018.

One such conference, the World Congress on Neurology and Neurodisorders, apparently takes place in Toronto on July 30 and 31, yet its website doesn’t list a venue or other conference details. At least three other Pulsus conferences are listed as happening in Toronto on those same days.

Motivated by Dr. Franco, McGill’s faculty of medicine recently added a paragraph to all letters of appointment and reappointment, including the statements: “Research findings and other scholarly contributions should be published only in well-established and credible scientific journals that employ rigorous peer review. Similarly, engagement in and attendance at conferences where your research results are presented, as well as your service in editorial boards, must reflect the same high standards of academic integrity.”

But Dr. Franco isn’t stopping there. “The next step is that I’m going to escalate this to the whole university,” he said. “We have to put a stop to these companies.”

“How to spot” a predatory or vanity conference

 

  • No address or phone number is a bad sign, as legitimate conferences always have full contact information.
  • If a contact name or address is available, a quick search online will likely reveal if the name is disreputable or that the address is an unidentified house or unsigned office.
  • If parts of the email or website don’t make sense or contain spelling and grammar mistakes, then avoid the conference. For example, a recent “Microbial Ecology Conference” promised “indigenous knowledge which is the result of datum and experience collection of local individuals.” Sometimes, however, the mistakes are subtler. One conference email promised: “Your papers will go through double-bind reviewing process.”
  • Keynote speakers and conference organizers shouldn’t pay huge fees for a conference.
  • Peer reviews take time, so if a conference submission gets accepted quickly, then you know something is wrong.
  • Another hint: multiple fields and disciplines are covered at the same venue, same dates or same conference – or the conference scope is too broad.
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  1. Randal Marlin / March 7, 2018 at 13:36

    The flip side of this issue relates to requiring full details of the conference: who is giving a paper, their credentials, etc., the detailed program of events, detailed biographies, conference theme, etc. The organizer approaches and gets commitments from speakers and submits a budget, as required. There is then the embarrassment of having to cancel the proposed conference when funding is denied. I’ve been through this process with SSHRC. Years later later I was able to organize that conference through internally generated funds as well private, external support. I would never go through the process again where you first present all the details, along with commitments, and then hope you get funding which ends up being completely denied. There should be approval in principle, followed by the details and commitments, followed by final tweaking and funding.

  2. William P Mckay / March 9, 2018 at 08:28

    Another easy (perhaps too easy to even mention) way I decide the conference is bogus is when, as often happens, they ask me to give a talk as a “respected expert” about something I know little about. It helps that I am not a respected expert about much.

  3. Peter L. / March 9, 2018 at 14:53

    How can an academic, someone whose job revolves around critical thinking and scrutinising data, ever fall for these predatory conferences? Like predator journals, you can spot them a mile away.

  4. Melvin Eugene / March 12, 2018 at 15:37

    Let’s call a spade a spade. These faculty members are some combination of dumb, lazy or actually want to go to the destination of the conference and then play dumb after the fact when called out on wasting grant money on bogus conferences. Stop publishing this BS article every 4 weeks

    • Christie / March 13, 2018 at 08:27

      I think this is closer to the truth. I find it impossible that people are actually “falling prey” to such overt scams.

  5. B.P. / September 18, 2018 at 06:42

    I am right now in one of those conferences. What a disaster!! I had some doubts about the organisation before I came, but once here I have to say I feel stupid I did not looked for this information before. Price really expensive for what we have been offered, twenty persons at most in a supposedly World Congress. Speakers who did not appear. Today (the second day) speakers have not appeared and other people who were here have decided as a good will offer to give presentations on what they work on. This is a meeting organized by Pulsus. I have never in my professional life have come across an event like this.

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