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Inside a “Fake” Conference: A Journey Into Predatory Science

Underwater scene of a cartoon scientist and an angler fish.
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An academic conference can be the highlight of an early-career researcher’s calendar. It presents a chance to share knowledge with like-minded scientists and hear experts discuss the pressing topics in their field. Usually conferences are tightly regulated operations, and fierce competition between attendees to get their abstracts accepted into the agenda is common. But that’s not always the case.

There is a growing underbelly of conferences that might walk and talk like the real thing but have none of the editorial standards expected by academics and have developed a reputation for advertising with fake agendas and high prices. These are "predatory conferences", named after the more well-known sister industry of "predatory publishing", where typically open-access model publications accept submissions without a proper peer review process, but with a steep publication price.

Our chance investigation started after a message from a stranger took me inside a predatory conference and has uncovered how predatory science has ensnared scientists at every level and made a small fortune for the conference organizers.

The message that kicked things off came from Zsuzsa Farkas, a Hungarian-born neuroscience student, who studies at BPP University in the UK. She had been looking forward to Conference Series LLC’s 4th International Congress on Addictive Behavior and Dual Diagnosis. Speaking to TN, she expressed how she had been “really excited” to book her place at the conference, which takes place September 5, 2019. Promising workshops, oral plenaries, keynote lectures, and a student poster competition, the conference seemed to tick every box.

It was when Farkas first submitted her registration fee of £225 ($275) that things started to feel wrong. Her payment was initially declined, so she gave Conference Series a call. A man called “Sam” picked up, who told her that the payment hadn’t gone through, but an inquiry with her bank suggested the money had been taken out of her account.

Eventually Farkas received a typo-filled email saying the company had received the money. By this point she had looked up Conference Series online, and realized that its parent company, Hyderabad, India-based OMICS International, was renowned as a predatory publisher. For Farkas, who, as of July 2019, has been unable to retrieve her payment, this was more significant than feeling tricked: “I am not working at the moment and study 4-6 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. I feel very disappointed and taken advantage of. I am a student, who has limited amount of money, so I cannot just throw away £225 for nothing.”

Finding fake science

Sadly for Farkas, if she had waited just a few more weeks to book her place, she might have seen the announcement that the US Federal Trade Commission had been awarded $50 million in a lawsuit against OMICS. The court proceedings revealed how OMICS had been engaging in several unethical publishing practices. These included making up its own version of the widely accepted Impact Factor journal rating system when Thomson Reuters excluded OMICS journals and tricking reputable scientists into being editors on their journals.

But what struck me about Farkas’s story is that, without any clear link on the Conference Series website connecting them to OMICS, it would be easy to think they were offering a typical conference package. The company claims to arrange thousands of conferences a year, on virtually every topic you could imagine – aquaculture, glycobiology, recycling, high energy physics, midwifery. Could an operation of this size really be predatory? What would one of these events actually look like from the inside?

Perhaps somewhat serendipitously, I saw that, just a short drive from my home, Conference Series was hosting the “23rd International Conference on Neurology & Neurophysiology” alongside the “24th International Conference on Neurosurgery & Neuroscience” at a hotel in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. I couldn’t exactly pass up the opportunity to get some answers, so I set out to find what really happens at a predatory conference.

A real event? 

Edinburgh is no stranger to conferences. The city’s ancient skyline is quite the draw for eventgoers, and there are a host of venues scattered across the UNESCO heritage sites in the city’s Old and New Towns. The conference I was to attend was being hosted at the Leonardo Hotel Murrayfield, quite far from the city center, in the quiet suburban area of Clermiston.

When I arrived at the Leonardo, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Would the conference even go ahead? Farkas clearly felt that she had paid £225 for an event that wasn’t even real, so I quickly went to the front desk to check the event was actually happening. The concierge assured me that, yes, the conference was taking place.

Reassured that I hadn’t had a wasted journey, I needed to address the small matter of how I was going to get into the conference, given that I hadn’t been able to get a press pass through the Conference Series website.

I went through to the conference lobby. Sure enough, there was a registration area, although it appeared to have been hit by a mortar. Nametags and registration documents were scattered around a desk in disorganized piles, with just one young staff member manning the booth. I asked her if I would be able to get into the conference as press. I didn’t have any identification beyond my business card, but she waved me through, to a room with about 50 attendees.

Farkas may have been worried about having paid money for a non-existent event, but this was very much a real conference, with a full speaker schedule, including a keynote. Quite a renowned keynote, as it happened, as Professor Koji Abe, of Okayama University in Japan, stood up.

Abe is an influential figure in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research, having helped popularize the use of edavarone, one of the few promising drugs with therapeutic potential in the field. He was listed in the program as giving not just one but two lectures. Perhaps Farkas’s skepticism had been misplaced. After Abe had finished his plenary, however, things started to get a little weird.

The case of the missing plenary

Abe was given an official Conference Series certificate, took a quick photo, and then speedily left the room, muttering something about needing to catch a flight. Some confused glances were exchanged in the audience at this, as there were just two hours until Abe’s next talk was scheduled.

It was to be somewhat less than two hours, in fact, as the next plenary speaker, Tofael Hossain Bhuiyan, a clinician at Rangpur Medical College Hospital in Bangladesh, didn’t come up to speak when his name was called by the session chair. He was nowhere to be found. The explanation for this was quite literally that he had “gone missing.” It was at this point that I realized this wasn’t going to be your typical conference.

The morning’s talks proceeded at pace, with speakers touching on a dizzying array of topics. Variety in a conference schedule isn’t unusual, but there was almost no organization or theme to the talks. Neurology case studies were followed by in-depth presentations on basic neuroscience. Clearly, the “23rd International Conference on Neurology & Neurophysiology” and “24th International Conference on Neurosurgery & Neuroscience” had been simply smashed together to create a loosely connected talk series that was baffling to attendees.

I spoke to one fellow conference-goer, Francesca Morelli, a clinician who was then studying at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. “When I looked at the agenda for the first time, I noticed the program was heterogeneous, there were so many different topics," said Morelli. "I really didn’t get what the educational value of the whole conference could have been.” But by the time she saw the formal agenda, Morelli, eager to present at an international conference, had her poster accepted into the agenda. For a fee, of course.

This sense of the surreal was heightened by the organizers’ seeming disregard for the agenda. With an entire keynote speaker missing, we reached the intended lunchbreak at about 10am. Rather than have a break for discussion, the conference just plowed on, meaning we were given a talk scheduled for 3.50 pm at around midday. Of the nine talks after Abe’s that I stayed for, four were cancelled due to missing speakers, including Abe’s second presentation. He had, indeed, needed to catch that flight.

As the mishmash of presentations broke for lunch, I used the opportunity to quiz the session chair, Ludmila Zylinska, who was from the University of Lodz in Poland. She explained to me that she had originally been booked as a speaker, before being asked to become the session moderator at the last minute. She didn’t know who many of the speakers in her session were. She told me that around a third of the two-day event’s speaker lineup had not arrived. Zylinska wasn’t affiliated with Conference Series, and the only representative from the company, it seemed, was the administrator who had let me in at the door.

A disorganized committee

No clearer on how the event took shape or who was running it, I tracked down a researcher I recognized from the conference website, a member of the conference organizing committee. This was Felix-Martin Werner, a researcher at Euro Akademie Pößneck in Germany. Unlike Zylinska, Werner readily admitted having worked with both Conference Series and OMICS in the past. Werner said that, despite being on the organizing committee, he had had nothing to do with picking the speaker lineup, this was pre-decided by Conference Series.

What about the other committee members? One was a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, whom I managed to reach in a phone call I made in the lunch break. He informed me that he was unable to attend the conference, as he was sick. Another member of the committee emailed me saying he was getting married in Brazil. The fourth member was unreachable.

I had a quick chat with some conference attendees sitting in the hotel lobby. They had traveled from the Philippines to attend, spending thousands of pounds on flights in the process. They seemed to have enjoyed the morning’s talks but said they were disappointed that some speakers had not turned up. Morelli echoed this sentiment, and raised concerns about the conference’s organization, “The general discussion after the lectures was poor. At other conferences I have attended, the chair can lead the discussion, or ask critical questions about the lectures, and that is what I have missed.” 

I decided I had seen enough, but as I prepared to leave, I caught up with Werner again to ask how he had gotten involved with OMICS. He spoke with surprising frankness about how he had been offered the editorship of one of their journals, the Journal of Cytology & Histology. He told me that in his position as editor, he had reviewed more than 30 papers, but due to OMICS’s struggle to get reliable reviewers, had had to review a number of papers he had limited understanding of.

The journal has a publication fee of €1100 per paper. Werner brightly told me that he received a reduced rate for publishing in his own journal. My surprise at this state of affairs must have told on my face, as he sought to explain that other, eminent scientists were involved with the journal and that, despite its problems, it had some stature. He mentioned that his co-editor was George Perry, a Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Perry is also the editor of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the most respected publications in the field. Why was a respected neuroscientist registered as the editor of a predatory journal? I realized that the links between predatory conferences and predatory publishing might be stronger than I had first thought, and resolved to find out how OMICS had managed to convince so many researchers with their events and journals.

A new way for academic journals? 

“I wanted to make a difference in the way they ran the journal. I’m an experienced editor and I wanted to make an impact on the publication’s quality,” George Perry tells me, after I get hold of him a couple of weeks after the conference. He explains that OMICS reached out to him some years back, asking if he would be able to take up an editorial position. Perry saw OMICS’ open-access model as a different way for researchers to approach publishing: “I was really intrigued by the open-access model because I thought it was going to change the way journals function. Now, I’m not so sure.”

Perry tells me he repeatedly raised his concerns about OMICS’ editorial process, even threatening to resign his editorship if changes weren’t made. At first, that worked, and practices were altered, sometimes overnight, says Perry, especially when he talked directly to OMICS founder and CEO, Srinababu Gedela (Gedela did not respond to requests for comment for this article). Over time, however, OMICS employees stopped responding. “They’re not terribly capable people,” Perry tells me. Eventually, he had had enough. “I can tell you it’s extremely difficult to resign from them. I tried to resign a number of times.” Perry tells me he has never met Werner, and that he has completely lost faith in what he initially thought were OMICS’ good intentions: “I don’t feel that they have a commitment to moving forward.  I did feel that years ago. That’s why I stayed with them. I felt that very strongly because I really was intending to change the picture of that publication.  I thought that the information flow in science was going to change.”

The 48-hour peer review process

I reach back out to Morelli, now back at home in Italy. I’m keen to hear how the second day of the conference went. Suffice to say, not much better. “When I was showing my poster, the colleagues who were supposed to judge them did not look so keen to ask critical questions. The whole thing didn’t appear very professional,” she says.

After the conference, Morelli found that the email address she had used to register was being spammed with messages asking for article submissions to OMICS journals, promising that her submissions would be reviewed in just two days. “That’s an impossible timeframe to get proper peer review,” says Morelli “This opportunity can be appealing for young researchers, who need to publish. There is some real pressure behind it”.

The predator’s trap

Predatory science, be it in the form of journals or conferences, sounds easy to avoid on the surface; a less-than-honest operation that can be simply outsmarted. However, after talking with the conference attendees and Perry, I was left with the realization that predatory organizations are smarter than they may first appear. Their habit of preying on early-career researchers works because they are pushed into attending and showing off their work at conferences by the present-or-perish system. This is only complicated when predatory conference companies advertise talks that aren’t there, or poster competitions that merely go through the motions.

Morelli says that it’s not straightforward to judge the quality of a conference before attending it, but she won’t ever attend another Conference Series meeting.

Perry’s situation shows that even respected, veteran scientists can be exploited by predatory outfits, who squeeze them for every drop of money or credibility they can. Morelli believes that more needs to be done to get the word out about predatory science to researchers at every level, be it senior scientists, early-career researchers, or even students like Farkas. “I think it’s a fraud, actually. I strongly believe that the scientific community should discourage students, doctors, and researchers in general from attending these conferences. We need a blacklist of conferences that we can’t trust. I hope people will open their eyes and be more aware of the problem.” 

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