Sham Conferences: Has the Pandemic Made Them Worse?

Skift Take

Predatory conferences are bogus events that exist to sell tickets using everything from shoddy registration pages to unconfirmed speakers. With the flush of virtual events during the pandemic, the situation may be getting worse.

While predatory conferences — sham events that actually don’t exist but entice the unwary to sign on — are nothing new, the pandemic and resulting surge of virtual events is likely making them more prevalent and harder to detect.

Among those concerned are Anthony Cassidy, senior international sales manager of the Manchester Convention Bureau, who noticed a surge in fake events on tap for the U.K. city last year.​​ These included the so-called “3rd International Conference on Nuclear & High-Energy Physics,” which claimed on its website to be coming to Manchester in March 2020.

“Fraudulent conferences exist and they are becoming a real problem for the meetings industry,” said Cassidy in a blog post on the convention bureau’s website, which includes tips for spotting and avoiding predatory conferences.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the people behind these malicious operations have become more sophisticated over the last couple of years,” Cassidy told EventMB. “ As audiences become more comfortable with online attendance, there’s been an increase in the number of ticketed virtual events with little to no academic value at all.”

He also noted that the organizers of fraudulent events have become much savvier in the way they target their potential victims.

“For the first time this year I’ve started to see sponsored ads on my personal social media accounts – representative of the fact that scammers are prepared to stay at the forefront of technology to target their victims,” he said.

Predatory conferences particularly plague the academic/scientific world, where pressure to earn prestige or credentials from event participation are paramount. Increasingly, directors of college libraries like Marisa Albrecht at the University of Indiana find themselves charged with maintaining ever-growing reference resources to help professors and researchers detect which conferences inviting their participation may be fake.

While Albrecht said she has heard no reports from faculty that predatory conferences have grown more prevalent during the pandemic, she also noted that it’s possibly because “most of us have not been traveling.”


IAP Study on Predatory Conferences

Alarmed by the potential impact on the scientific community, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global network of over 140 academies of science, engineering and medicine, is conducting a study of predatory journals and conferences, which it plans to release early next year.

“Predatory journals, publishers and conferences are on the rise and becoming increasingly sophisticated,” said Tracey Elliott, director of the IAP project. “Indeed, predatory journals and conferences threaten to cause long-term, widespread damage to research and researchers. ”

Some material for the report will be based on IAP’s recent survey of 1,800 respondents from the research community. Over 80 percent of the survey respondents said they perceived predatory conferences to be a serious problem or on the rise in their country of origin. Over a quarter of the respondents said they had either published in a predatory journal or attended a predatory conference, or did not know if they had.

“Reasons cited for this included a lack of awareness of such scams and encouragement by their peers,” Elliott noted. “Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the use of predatory journals and conferences is embedded, or at least tolerated, in some institutions.”

While there is not yet documented evidence, Elliott told EventMB that she believes the problem of predatory conferences is only getting worse with the pandemic and rise of virtual events.

“It is relatively easy to establish predatory conferences online and more difficult to establish markers of legitimacy to quality assure them. Certainly this was the view shared by conferencing experts during our project and by some authors who lament that there are no central or global authorities monitoring this.”

– DR. TRACEY ELLIOTT, Project Director, InterAcademy Partnership 

Detecting a Predatory Conference

Assuming that predatory conferences may be growing harder to detect in the increasingly virtual world of events, what are the key signs to look for?

Here are tips from some of the experts, including Elliott, Cassidy and Jeffrey Beall, a library scientist who defined the term “predatory conference” and created Beall’s List as a guide for spotting them.

Conference Name. Clues can sometimes lie right within the conference name itself. Is it overly ambitious or grandiose? Does it purport to be “global” and “international,” which are frequent buzzwords used by predatory organizers? Is the name far too generic or does it closely mimic the name of a legitimate, well-known conference?

Background Research. Ways to vet the legitimacy of a conference including checking with organizations that maintain lists of predatory conferences, including university libraries, Beall’s List and the International Congress and Convention Association. Include the words ‘scam’ or ‘predatory’ when Googling the conference to see if red flags emerge. Check which conferences are organized by recognized institutions in the discipline. Consult with senior colleagues.

Website Quality. Pay attention to the design and functionality of the conference website. Is there something odd about the conference URL? Are the branding and themes for the conference consistent and professional looking? Are some of the links broken? Is the destination information accurate? Are there grammatical and spelling errors?

Identify the Organizer. If a meeting is organized by a professional association or society, it should be listed on their website. Does the location of the conference match up with the location of the academic committee (most academic conferences are hosted by a local committee)? Can contact information for the organizer be easily found?

Subject Matter Too Broad. Conferences with programs that try to cover everything in a given field may be designed to hook in as many people as possible.

Sponsors and Speakers Too Good to Be True. Predatory conferences often advertise an impressive roster of speakers and sponsors who may actually have nothing to do with the conference. If the conference is not well-known, it is unlikely to have attracted luminaries.

Fees Abnormally High. The organizers of predatory conferences often charge fees to take in as much money as possible. Check what is the norm in the industry. Another tip-off is if the conference is charging presenters higher fees than the attendees.