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The Ultimate Guide to Avoiding Predatory Conferences

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Read time: 6 minutes

If you work in science, be it as a student, postdoc or seasoned professor, you’ve probably received an email from a predatory conference provider. The message comes in many forms, often arriving many times a week, but will read something like the following:


Dear Valued Professor [whether you are a professor or not is irrelevant],

Please be joining us for the next instalment of our top quality scientific program at the 423rd International Conference on Varied Research Activities and Information Sharing, to be held in the finest venues [read: budget motel] that your country has to offer.

For just the low, low price of [this will not be a low price] we can offer you a poster, speaker, plenary, conference organizing committee position, where you can share your amazing research and add to your well endowad [sic] CV.

Sign up now!!

Best,

Shakira Baratheon, Customer Service Rep, Incredible Science Conferences LLP.


Now, as much as we would all like to enhance our standing in our individual research fields, the truth is that Shakira cannot help you with this goal. Predatory conferences are the ramshackle, distant cousin of your regular scientific event, a Fyre Festival of science (without the involvement of Ja Rule). While many readers might assume that, should you accept her offer and send money for a booking fee, Shakira would simply take the cash and run, I can assure you that these events do actually take place. I should know – I attended one.


The standard of these events is, however, likely to be rather pitiful. Would-be attendees should expect missing plenary speakers, multiple fields of research smashed together in a Frankenstein program and an absence of the important academic rigor that fuels the conferences that scientists know and love. The companies organizing these events are motivated by profit above all else. When tickets are sold at hundreds of dollars a pop, with logistics either outsourced to bemused academic organizing committees or poorly paid administrators, there are huge margins to be realized in the predatory conference field.


The problem is that it is getting harder to separate fake conferences from real ones.


For every few shoddy, eyebrow-raising emails from Shakira and colleagues, there will now likely be one or two slick emails, pumped out by a ChatGPT-assisted administrator, that look a lot more believable. Searching online is futile as well. A cursory Google search for “Biology Conferences” turns up at least two results that link to predatory conference companies in high-ranking positions on the first page.


Given this deluge of dodgy science, I have created a guide to spotting and avoiding predatory conferences, which, should you follow it, will help you avoid getting hoodwinked, scammed, swindled, stung, defrauded or bunkoed by predatory conferences. These events are always updating their tactics, however, so please reach out to r.mackenzie@technologynetworks.com if you have any questions about predatory conferences.

The basics

Have you got a passion for “sceince”? Or webpage design? The first tip I have for you is also the most straightforward. Whether you are studying an unprompted email or a conference webpage, look for shoddy writing quality or outlandish layouts. As an example here, I will use the predatory conference provider, Conference Series. As a rule – see the gray areas of predatory science below – it is hard to definitively call any particular conference provider entirely predatory, but I feel comfortable doing so with Conference Series. It is owned by OMICS International, a company that was slapped with a still-unpaid $50 million fine by the US Federal Trade Commission for their “deceptive” practices. 


In terms of red flags, the Conference Series site has it all: eye-watering fonts, weird capitalization, spelling errors and brutal UX design which makes you feel unwell just from scrolling. Please take this nausea as an indicator of quality and click away from these sites.


We need to talk. The second tip I have for you is also straightforward but should be at the forefront of your decision-making when it comes to choosing a conference. Ask yourself, “Do I know anyone who has attended one of these conferences before?” and “Is this a conference I have been recommended by my institution, university, or lab leadership?” If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, please talk to your colleagues and get their read on the event. The dominant conferences in your field are probably in that position because they have proved time and time again that they can deliver a valuable experience for attendees. Do you really need to set out on an uncharted course by attending a new conference no one has ever heard of?


The gray areas of predatory science 

You might be wondering why we don’t simply provide a list of websites to avoid in this guide.


There are two key reasons. 

1. Stamping out predatory providers can become a game of whack-a-scam. Every time you mark out a provider as dodgy, the company behind the conferences will likely switch to a new domain or name and continue as before. 

2. Predatory or not? University of Colorado librarian Jeffrey Beall attempted to make a list of predatory journal companies back in 2008. But Beall was eventually forced to take the list down, having received both legal threats from predators and rebukes from legitimate providers that had failed some of his stringent quality tests, such as the open-access journal provider Frontiers.

Deeper dives

The advice above should prove handy for avoiding the most obvious scam conferences. But the reality is that most people who end up attending these events likely don’t have a support network they can consult. Here, I will dig deeper into the smaller clues that give away potentially predatory providers that you can investigate solo.


Quality over quantity. If you have ever attended a decent scientific conference, you may have noticed that they seem rather a pain to put on. There’s a huge amount of planning that goes into making sure even smaller events run well. If the provider you are consulting is organizing, say, 25 conferences in a single month, all around the globe, on every different conceivable topic, you can make one of two assumptions. Either that said provider has the logistical acumen of Hannibal’s chief elephant mountaineer and a bank balance to make Bernard Arnault look like a medieval peasant, or that the conferences this provider arranges are individually going to be rather poor. Examine the volume of events being put on by the provider and weigh up for yourself how likely it is that they can happen at an acceptable standard


Learned society or unlearned anarchy? Time for a bit of amateur sleuthing. Many respectable conferences, such as this brain reporter’s favorite, the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Meeting, are organized by a learned society that is made up of researchers in the field. It shouldn’t take much fumbling about on the provider’s website to turn up some basic contact information. Do the provider’s details match what you’d expect from the organization? Take legitimate conference non-profit Gordon Research Conferences. These folks are very much not predators and put on a host of interdisciplinary events each year. A quick search shows that they are based at 512 Liberty Lane in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. A hop on Google Maps Street View shows us that there is indeed a rather large building with the Gordon Research Conferences logo on the side.


A red brick building by the side of a road. Gordon Research Conferences' HQ in Rhode Island. Credit: © 2023 Google 


A similar hunt for Conference Series’ European HQ shows a residential street in the town of Constanta in eastern Romania. They appear to be based out of a housing block. With all due respect to Constanta, is this likely to be the epicenter of the academic monolith that Conference Series claims to be?


A grey concrete tower block beside a tree.

Conference Series' "HQ" in Constanta, Romania. Credit: © 2023 Google 


Who’s speaking? The speaker lineup is a huge draw at the best academic events. Hearing from and chatting with the brightest minds in your field can be a thrill. But if your conference lineup looks like a random administrator has scraped headshots from academic websites from across the globe and pasted them in haphazardly, you might want to take a pause. Look closely at the speakers listed – do their headshots look warped? Do they represent a span of disciplines that bears little resemblance to the topics under discussion? Do searches of their profiles online turn up blanks? Probably a predator. Be warned, however, that this is not a golden rule, as some conferences will pay a lone plenary speaker an exorbitant fee to turn up, speak and lend some legitimacy to proceedings. Look carefully through the whole speaker list. Some of them might be listed at institutions that no longer exist. Some of the speakers may no longer exist themselves; predatory conferences are not above including dead speakers in their lineups.

Summary

Even if you feel that your sleuthing skills are up to the challenge these conferences pose, I would still urge caution. These organizations are always changing their strategies, and I intend to update this guide as I am made aware of new approaches and tactics. If I can leave you with one final maxim, it’s this: academic science is a ruthless and competitive business; if someone offers you a cushy speaker slot out of the blue, or an oddly specific conference invite arrives in your inbox, think twice before accepting the offer.