9 Signs a conference is fake

6 minute read

Can you spot a fake conference? It seems many researchers can’t. So here are 9 ways to spot a fake.

“Power is not a great place for a good time.” So confidently concludes a 2016 paper submitted to an Atlanta conference on atomic and nuclear physics.

If that sentence reads like nonsense, that’s because it was written using iOS autocomplete. This fact didn’t seem to bother the conference organisers too much because they accepted the paper without a quibble.

Another thing that’s not a great place for a good time? A fake conference.

Much like predatory journals, predatory or fake conferences are often organised by for-profit companies who prey on the eagerness of academics and early-career researchers to publish and present. If you get duped into attending a predatory conference, you can look forward to a timetable full of withdrawn submissions, shambolic organisation and a poor-quality technical programme.

And that’s before you take into account the cost of registration fees, travel and accommodation, and the work it takes to submit and present. 

Scientific and medical research, especially, are currently experiencing a direct threat to their legitimacy. So much so that the US Federal Trade Commission fined OMICs Publishing, a well-known organiser of predatory conferences, $50 million and ordered the company to cease its deceitful business practices.

Like I said: a dubious conference ≠ a great place for a good time.

What defines a conference as “fake”?

Fake conferences usually skimp or skip peer review, which any above-board conference organiser will tell you is the foundation for building a high-quality programme. They’re run by for-profit companies who may present themselves as not-for-profit. And they often funnel accepted papers into known predatory journals or never publish a conference book of proceedings at all.

The result is big profits for the organisers, and academics and researchers left out of pocket, with little to show for their time or expense.

According to James McCrostie, too many researchers think that predatory conferences are only a problem for early-career researchers from developing countries. With impressive-looking websites stuffed with falsehoods, it’s not always easy to tell a fake conference from a legitimate one.

Thankfully, there are criteria for determining whether a conference is predatory. So if you’re a researcher with a paper to submit, do some online digging to tell if a conference is legitimate or not.

Use these nine clues to spot a fake conference.

1. The conference has an overly ambitious title

Does the conference title seem a little too big for its boots? “International” and  “global” are two buzzwords used by predatory conference organisers to draw in would-be presenters.

If the conference claims international status but the organisers or delegates seem to come from only one country, be wary. (And if the organisers use a name that implies they’re based in one country when they seem to actually operate out of another, run for the hills.)

Our tip

The conference URL won’t be the main giveaway, but it’s a good place to start when you’re analysing how legit a conference is. I’ve found that quite a few predatory conferences use subdomains for their generic websites, i.e. cardiology.conferences.com.

  1. The technical programme is broad. Very broad.

Does the description of the conference’s technical programme try to cover everything but the kitchen sink? Conferences with programmes that don’t seem to specialise in any way, or that try to combine different disciplines in unusual ways, are likely to lack credibility.

The term “interdisciplinary” can be a good tip-off. This particular tactic directly targets early-career researchers who are naturally delighted in getting accepted to present at a conference with such a broad programme.

Our tip

Run the conference by your peers before you submit or register to attend. Your more experienced colleagues will likely have a thorough understanding of the conferences in your field and can help give you a steer before you make your decision.

3. The language on the conference website is…off

Is the conference website bizarrely written or littered with spelling and grammar mistakes? Poorly written content can be a good sign that the organisers behind it are less than legit.

Organising a conference is often a significant investment of time and money for associations and committees, so it’s pretty rare to find a legit conference website that has heaps of grammatical and spelling errors.

Our tip

Scan the conference website and learn as much as you can from it. Reading with a critical mindset will help you tell if the language is bizarrely written, and if it is, avoid the conference at all costs.

4. Renowned organisations are sponsoring a low-profile conference

Is there a big mismatch between the profile of the conference and the profile of its sponsors? Fake conferences often falsely claim big organisations as partners or sponsors.

If the conference has a host of impressive backers, but your colleagues have never heard of it, something may be off. Predatory conferences will try anything to look valid and this often means clinging to the profile of some of the most renowned organisations. Be wary of overly impressive scientific and organising committee members, predatory conferences have been known to list leaders in the conference field on them to dupe unsuspected researchers. 

Our tip

Check out the sponsor page on the website, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. I’ve seen Google listed as sponsors in some fake tech conferences, and big pharmaceutical companies listed as sponsors for unknown medical conferences. Companies of that stature don’t often sponsor unknown conferences, so be wary.

5. The organisers’ contact details are missing, or aren’t quite right

Is it difficult to locate clear contact details for the organisers? Predatory conferences often try to bamboozle by tucking away contact details or hiding behind fake phone numbers or P.O. boxes.

Our tip

Double-check the contact details are legit. If it takes you to long to find these details, it’s time to get suspicious. If you can find the contact details, try your best to verify they’re real.

6. Another conference with a suspiciously similar name already exists

When you search the conference name, does another conference with a very similar title pop up? An old favourite of fake conferences is to give their event a name that’s a near-match with an established and respected conference.

Our tip

Just do a quick search of the conference name. If two identical conferences appear, conduct an analysis of both. You should be easily able to tell the legit from the fake.

If you’re a conference organiser and it’s your event that’s been duplicated, contact the fake conference organiser and demand they change the name. If they ignore you, seek legal advice. Be aware and proactive when it comes to predatory conferences, your conference delegates could register and pay for the wrong conference.

7. The conference or its organisers have known associates

When you search the conference or its organisers, do you find links to known predatory conferences or journals? These shady organisers rarely operate alone.

Jeffrey Beall is a retired librarian who created a list to help researchers throughout the world identify predatory publishers — including conferences.

Our tip

Check the conference details against Beall’s list of predatory journals and Caltech Library’s list of predatory conferences.

You should also search for the name of the organisation on Google along with the word “predatory”. Some other research who’s been duped in the past may have published their experience.

8. The organisers are charging higher-than-normal fees

Are the conference fees higher than what’s standard for your field? Sure, conference fees can vary (at PaperCrowd we see a wide spectrum), but a common practice of fake conference organisers is to charge high registration fees to maximise their profits.

So be wary. And if the conference is charging presenters higher fees than attendees, alarm bells should start ringing.

Our tip

Reach out to your peers, compare the prices they pay for attending conferences. Experienced researchers get suspicious when they see absurdly high registration fees for an unknown conference.

9. The conference is unusually frequent

When you Google the conference or the organisers, do a lot of different listings pop up?

If the same conference is held at multiple times in different cities, or the organiser is holding multiple conferences at the same time, proceed with extreme caution. Some predatory conferences alternate between countries and this way they hold 3-4 conferences per year, resulting in a tidy profit.

Our tip

Research, research, research. If the same organiser or conference title pops up in multiple locations or for multiple conferences each year, be warned.

Don’t fall prey to shady conference organisers

Don’t make the costly mistake of being fooled by fake conference organisers. Use the above clues to spot a fake conference before you submit your research (or worse, pay to register).

And remember, if something smells off, it probably is. 

Jeffrey Beall’s role

The points above are adapted from Jeffrey Beall’s Criteria for Determining Predatory Conferences. Jeffrey who was a former librarian at the University of Colorado Denver is the founding father of identifying fake conferences and coined the phrase predatory conferences.

Brian Campbell

Brian helps researchers find conferences on PaperCrowd. He enjoys entertaining his baby nephew, playing an insane amount of sport, and being wildly competitive at party games. (He’s a pass-the-parcel champion.) Previously, he worked as the admin of an international entrepreneurship research conference.