Thorough evaluation and expert peer review of research are at the core of academic and scientific integrity. When researchers attend a conference or cite a paper, they do so with confidence that these events and publications are operated in good faith and have undergone a trusted review process to ensure, as much as possible, that the content they distribute is sound. Scientists who present their work at these conferences similarly trust that doing so enhances, rather than detracts from, their professional reputations. Meanwhile, media outlets that report on conferences expect that not only do the proceedings offer fresh insights on new research, but also the research has been vetted for its methodology and significance.
These expectations and assumptions about the legitimacy of publications and events organized by well-intentioned, competent groups with genuine interest in advancing science were long safe. However, predatory journals began to appear in the early 2000s and have become more common over the past decade, signaling that there are unscrupulous organizations willing to push scientific integrity aside for the sake of profit. These journals offer researchers easy access to publishing, for a fee, while dismissing typical quality controls like rigorous peer review or checks for plagiarism.
More recently, there has been an increase in the occurrence of similarly predatory (or “fake”) conferences across numerous scientific disciplines, including in the Earth and space sciences. Unfortunately, it is no longer safe to assume that a conference is genuine without doing proper background research into its organizers and sponsors.
My colleagues and I have witnessed the growing trend of predatory conferences both firsthand and through discussions with clients. Our company provides technology and software solutions that help scientific conference organizers manage elements of their event planning, from participant registration to the peer review process. Admittedly, we have a vested interest in the success of legitimate conferences, with whom we do business, so the growth of predatory conferences has repercussions for us as a company. More important, however, is that these activities harm researchers who fall prey to them, and they threaten to damage public perceptions of and trust in science.
The Growing Problem of Fake Conferences
For most academics, attending scholarly conferences is a conventional part of advancing one’s research and growing one’s career. For early-career researchers especially, these events are an important way to build CVs, develop professional brands, share research, and gather valuable feedback. Conferences also present unique opportunities to network with like-minded people who may later become colleagues, research partners, employers, or funders. Researchers and others in academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations can mingle and share ideas during formal sessions and gatherings, in hallways and lobbies between sessions, over dinner, or, more recently, in online discussions hosted as part of remote or hybrid conferences.
In short, such meetings are organized to bring together scholars whose work overlaps and to create an environment for idea-sharing and research development. This is not the case when it comes to fake conferences, which unfortunately often look and sound superficially like standard academic conferences. Their websites boast of renowned speakers, and they advertise events hosted at reputable venues and backed by high-profile sponsors.
lthough the term “fake” may suggest that these are not real events, they actually do take place. However, they are typically not nearly as well organized as advertised, nor does their content live up to the billing. Participants often find ill-attended events that lack the prestigious keynote speakers advertised and have few learning or networking opportunities.
Predatory academic conferences are more common than you may think. Even as of 2017, there were reportedly more such conferences available to scientific researchers than there were genuine events held by scholarly groups that follow standard peer review processes.
In a recent study conducted over a 2-year period by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), of more than 1,800 researchers working in 112 countries who were surveyed anonymously, 80% reported that predatory journals and conferences either were a serious problem in their country already or were becoming a serious problem. Of those surveyed, 11% acknowledged having published in a predatory journal, 2% knowingly and 9% who were completely unaware at the time. Meanwhile, 4% acknowledged having participated in a predatory conference, with 1% attending knowingly and 3% unaware. Another 6% of respondents were uncertain whether they had attended a predatory conference.
Predatory conferences are big business, organized with the primary goal of profit generation. In particular, they are set up to scam people out of registration and publishing fees, and as a result, organizers are known to accept every proposed submission regardless of merit, as long as it is accompanied by a registration fee. The conferences thus lack the scientific and editorial integrity required of a legitimate academic meeting.
These events are being organized mostly by a relatively small number of large, international organizations, although smaller companies have recently entered the industry. Senthil Gopinath, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, a trade group for the association meetings industry, has commented on the scale and impact of predatory conferences: “Tens of thousands of terrible quality and sometimes fraudulent conferences are today being promoted around the world, which presents an industrial-scale challenge to bona fide associations and their quality education programs. It’s a global phenomenon, which today impacts negatively on almost every scientific discipline.”
Wasted Resources, Bad Science, and Eroded Trust
Extrapolating from its recent survey results, the IAP estimated that at least 1 million researchers globally have fallen prey to predatory journals and conferences, and that these activities have wasted billions of dollars in research funding—for example, on time and materials spent on research published in predatory journals as well as on registration and travel expenses to attend predatory conferences. The IAP report also noted that significant reputational damage and emotional stress for scientists sometimes accompany the realization that they’ve been “duped or scammed.”
While researchers at all career levels are susceptible to falling prey to these predatory practices, early-career academics may be particularly at risk, lured by tempting opportunities to gain experience presenting their work and build their resumes and careers amid competitive “publish or perish” environments. These researchers, who are often struggling to find funding, waste their scarce and hard-earned money on expenses related to attending or presenting at a fake conference. Furthermore, the IAP report points out that “researchers in low- and middle-income countries were more likely to report they had used predatory practices, or not know if they had, than those in higher-income ones.” This trend could be explained by predatory conference organizers targeting countries where there are fewer opportunities for researchers, among other reasons.
The existence of predatory conferences and journals—and the unvetted science they present—risks damaging the legitimacy of academia and the scientific enterprise in the eyes of policymakers, community leaders, and those in the public who rely on scientific expertise but may not be equipped to distinguish what is or is not solid science. The more these people’s work, lives, and decisions are undermined by bad science, the less faith they are likely to have in credible research. And if they do not trust the work being published by academic sources, where will they turn for information?
The growth of predatory conferences and journals may also offer more opportunities for underqualified and underinformed commentators to pass off bad science as legitimate, whether on purpose or not. This is especially true in an era when misinformation is rampant, the trustworthiness of unbiased, reliable sources of scientific information is increasingly questioned, and anyone with a social media account can potentially build an audience of millions. In this environment, the sanctity of research-based, peer-reviewed scientific findings is vitally important.
Considering these costs to researchers and to research integrity, it’s clear the academic community must face predatory conferences head-on.
In a few isolated incidents, legal action has been taken against the organizers of predatory conferences. For example, in 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed charges against several companies, alleging that they lied to researchers about their conferences and publications. And in 2019, a federal court found that the companies’ claims that research submissions underwent a rigorous peer review process and review by editorial boards made up of well-respected academics were false, ordering them to pay more than $50 million to resolve the charges.
Despite the occasional legal and financial penalties doled out to predatory conference organizers for their practices, not much can be done from an institutional perspective to protect the academic community. Perhaps the most effective means to tackle the problem is for individual researchers to recognize and avoid predatory conferences for themselves.
Recognizing and Avoiding Predatory Conferences
Predatory conferences can be difficult to differentiate from legitimate conferences. However, there are steps researchers can take and telltale signs to look for that will help determine whether an event is worth their time and money. The following approaches may be especially useful:
Research the organization putting on the event. Chances are you know of the major think tanks and organizations that would organize legitimate events in your field of expertise. If a conference organizer is a private company or an organization you don’t know about, or you’re considering an event outside your primary field, do some digging. Research the organization online and search for lists of predatory conferences that have been identified. Even if the event you’re considering is not listed, if the organization hosting it has been called out for organizing predatory conferences in the past, it’s reasonable to be suspicious. You can also check the website Think. Check. Attend., which aims to help researchers judge the legitimacy and academic credentials of conferences to help them determine whether they are legitimate and worthy of pursuit.
Spend some time on the event website. Legitimate academic conferences will build a website that’s an extension of their main site. If a conference’s website URL is completely unrelated to an academic or reputable professional organization, that’s a red flag.
Consider the sponsors. Some predatory conferences will list big-name sponsors to create the appearance of a well-funded, well-planned event. But are the sponsors mentioned relevant to the topic of the conference? If you’re considering attending a conference in the Earth and space sciences but the main sponsors appear to be medical or biotechnology companies, for example, it would be a good idea to investigate further, perhaps by contacting the supposed sponsoring organizations to verify their participation.
Connect with the event organizers. If you’re skeptical about the legitimacy of an event, reach out to the organizers. Ask about their peer review process and details related to the venue and agenda. Organizers of a legitimate conference will be communicative and happy to clarify any questions you have about their event. If their reply is suspicious, or they don’t reply at all, chances are you’re better off sitting out the event.
Academic and professional conferences offer important avenues to gain experience, learn about cutting-edge research, gather feedback about one’s own work, and network with peers and potential collaborators, employers, and funders. Predatory conferences must not deter us from participating in conferences as a whole, but it is increasingly vital to do our research before sending off that registration fee. Funding for scientific and technical innovation, researchers’ reputations, and public trust in the reliability of science are all at stake.
This article was originally published in Eos Magazine.