Predatory conference scammers are getting smarter

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An email lands in my inbox.

‘We cordially invite you as a Speaker to attend the 8th World Congress on Chemistry and Organic Chemistry during October 22-24, 2018 at Frankfurt, Germany. We would like to inform you that your abstract has been accepted by our review committee for Oral Presentation.’

It explains I now need to register to confirm my participation, something that the Chemistry 2018 conference website informs me would set me back around $800 (£597).

I had submitted an abstract to this conference less than 24 hours earlier. I didn’t have to give details of my institution or demonstrate my academic credentials. I didn’t even submit it under my own name, but that of my ‘co-author’ Dr J J Becher, who came up with the phlogiston theory of combustion in 1667.

I propose (or at least Becher does) that the negative-mass material phlogiston could be used to power planes, ushering in a new era of environmentally friendly aviation. It’s complete nonsense of course. Phlogiston theory was debunked in the 18th century, as anyone with even a shred of chemistry knowledge should realise instantly. For good measure, the abstract was packed with bad grammar and impenetrable jargon.

Nevertheless, it was apparently accepted by the peer reviewers at Chemistry 2018.

A novel approach to lessening the environmental impact of aviation: the utilisation of a combustible negative-mass material alongside conventional hydrocarbon-based fuel

J J Becher, S Toyee (Royal Society of Chemistry, United Kingdom)

Increasing human movement around the planet through aviation has significant environmental impacts due to the combustion of fuel and subsequent emission of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, noise and heat on a colossal scale. Burning fossil fuels within the aviation industry contributes around 2.5% to total carbon emissions, which could rise to 22% by 2050. Unlike in other transport sectors, there is currently a lack of green alternatives in development, and marginal improvements in fuel efficiency have done little to offset the effects of a rapid growth in demand for air travel. One potential unexplored solution makes use of a phenomenon involving the unconventional material phlogiston, which has yet to be studied in this context. Released during the combustion of certain materials, phlogiston is an unusual substance in that it has negative mass. Although its existence has been known since the late 17th century, few commercial applications of this effect have been realised. We propose a novel mechanism of maintaining sustained flight whereby the negative-mass phlogiston released during the de-phlogistication of a fuel could be retained within the aircraft and thus used to counteract the mass of aircraft, cargo and passengers. Preliminary computational work indicates that such an innovation would enable air travel powered by only a fraction of the liquid fuel currently required. This could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of air travel, as well as greatly lowering the cost for consumers. The practical application of these principles has yet to be demonstrated; we call upon experimentalists to make use of the theoretical groundwork we have laid.

A growth industry

Predatory conferences like this have been around for years. Most academics will be familiar with the spam emails and tweets, characterised by broken English and over-the-top flattery. Like predatory publishers, they will accept any science, no matter how absurd, while collecting large registration fees. With tens of thousands scheduled for this year alone, it’s estimated predatory conferences now outnumber legitimate ones.

Though these events have traditionally been easy to spot – and to avoid – there is evidence to suggest the companies behind them are resorting to ever more underhand tactics to scam grant money off unsuspecting researchers.

I was flabbergasted that the front page was a picture of me welcoming everyone to this conference, which I’d never heard of before

Graham Richards, University of Oxford

Graham Richards, a physical and theoretical chemistry professor at the University of Oxford, UK, says he receives two or three invitations to conferences every day, most of which are clearly bogus. But he was recently shocked to discover his name and image was also being fraudulently used to try and give credibility to an event called iPharma.

He only became aware of this when a friend asked why he was featured prominently on a website for a large, prestigious-looking conference but was not down to speak in the programme. ‘I went to the website and was flabbergasted that the front page was a picture of me welcoming everyone to this conference, which I’d never heard of before,’ says Richards. ‘It had my biography and a photo of my face … I guess they just went to Google and picked one. Quite a lot of work had gone into it.’ He was also listed as being on iPharma’s organising committee.

Richards had no idea how long his image had been used on the website to try and attract registrations, but he was shocked at how convincing its general appearance was. ‘It looked so genuine, [and] like a pretty expensive website. There were [details of] sessions every day, who was speaking and at what time. It had sponsorship by GSK and Merck with all their logos,’ he says, noting that some of these ‘sponsors’ were later removed.

When he sent a complaint about the use of his image to what he hoped was the ‘real’ conference organiser through an online form, he received no response, although the picture and message from him on the homepage disappeared. To his annoyance, the website continued to list him as part of the organising committee. He has since been contacted by others who have had a similar experience, and believes this is a ‘fairly common scam’. ‘Most of my colleagues didn’t realise it was a thing, but it obviously is,’ he says.

Chemistry World attempted to contact all the members of the organising and scientific committees for iPharma’s 2019 conference. All of those that responded said that they were not involved in planning the conference and had no knowledge that they had been listed.

Louisa Roberts, a life sciences industry specialist at IBM, said that although she received an invitation to attend this year’s iPharma conference she had not agreed to be on the 2019 event’s scientific committee. She added that her name and image had been used without her knowledge and that she would ask for them to be taken off the website.

iPharma did not respond to a request for comment.

Getting worse

The use of prominent individuals or organisations to make a phony conference sound more legitimate is a growing problem, says Rebecca Quine from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) events team, who handle logistics for the RSC’s own conferences. ‘It’s been getting worse over the last few years and confidence in the conference system is being eroded. The RSC’s name has ended up on things … the logo splashed all over web pages,’ Quine says. (The RSC publishes Chemistry World.)

Confidence in the conference system is being eroded

Rebecca Quine, Royal Society of Chemistry

She adds that her team maintains a list of predatory providers that may try to post to the RSC’s online events listings. There are currently about 30 names, though Quine says there are about five or six core companies behind these, generating multiple ‘aliases’ in order to try and evade the list’s moderators.

Others, such as the California Institute of Technology, also keep a list of questionable conferences. But it can be difficult for organisations, and even harder for individuals, to keep track when new events are appearing almost constantly.

Some predatory meetings imitate real ones, in some cases well enough to deceive senior researchers into endorsing them. One senior chemistry professor at a UK university, who wished to remain anonymous, admitted being ‘taken in’ by a predatory conference and accepting an offer to be on its advisory board, before realising it was fake when alerted by a colleague. ‘Usually I can spot them but I didn’t this time … in my defence it was not at all obvious,’ the professor tells Chemistry World, adding that the name and branding of the conference presented to them in emails closely resembled that of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences congress.

The conference I submitted my phlogiston abstract to, Chemistry 2018, listed a prominent UK chemist among its organising committee. When contacted by Chemistry World they said they had not agreed for their image to be used in this way and were not affiliated with the conference provider, Allied Academies. They finally succeeded in getting their image and name removed shortly before this article went to press, after three months of efforts that included threatening legal action.

Ambitious researchers vulnerable

As well as trying to create familiarity, conference invites often attempt to flatter recipients into attending a particular event. Opportunities to present, the promise of ‘invited speaker’ status, and even medals for made-up awards have all been used to target researchers, particularly those in the early stages of their career who are looking to build their CV.

The problem is getting worse, says Richard Catlow, a chemistry professor at University College London in the UK. ‘There have always been conferences that weren’t terribly useful, but the people organising them were organising them for genuine motives,’ he explains. ‘What’s happened over the last two or three years are [companies] who are just exploiting people to make a bit of money.’

Ambitious early-career researchers, he adds, are especially vulnerable, and may rush to accept a speaker invitation without doing a lot of background research on the event. ‘Then they find, having used grant money to pay for substantial registration fees, that this is not really a proper, soundly based conference. I’ve heard of people going to these and then finding there’s hardly anybody there,’ says Catlow.

For the people who actually end up attending a fake conference, it can be a sorry affair. One researcher gives an account on his blog of signing up to what he thought was an international conference on political psychology, but turned out to be small handful of people in a single hired room giving talks on wildly different topics. The event had bundled together several such ‘conferences’, all marketed by the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology.

Catlow says that while some fake conferences are easy to spot, others are getting better at giving the appearance of being legitimate. A postdoctoral researcher in his own lab recently accepted a speaking slot at a ‘normal’ looking conference and was making plans to attend. The only red flag was an unusually high registration fee.

‘[The postdoc] was going to go. They are a sensible person but ambitious, and it looked quite respectable. I dug into it a bit because I’d been alerted to this problem … and realised that this really was a rogue conference that was just trying to get money out of people. They’d have turned up and found about a dozen people there.’

He says more needs to be done to raise awareness of predatory conferences, and would advise anyone to seek advice if unsure about a particular opportunity or invitation. ‘Unless they know it’s a well established conference series, they should have a good look and perhaps talk around [to colleagues] before accepting,’ he advises.

Red flags

Quine stresses the need for people to ‘educate themselves’ too by getting familiar with the companies behind predatory conferences and learning how to scrutinise event websites. Even if the site appears well produced at first glance, a look at the programme can reveal that ‘the topics aren’t very well laid out and there’s always something missing in the detail’.

The company Enago, which provides publishing services for researchers, lists some red flags that can be used to identify predatory conferences. It advises caution when the name of the conference is ‘overly generic’, if it combines many fields into one conference or offers an excessive number of awards for papers or researchers. Attendees should look for an event that is organised by a well-established organisation or professional society and check that the organisers are easy to contact, usually using a ‘.edu’ email account if the conference is in the US.

If it seems suspect, you can always submit a paper on phlogiston from J J Becher and see if it sticks.

Emma StoyeSenior science correspondent, Chemistry World