Has academic spam killed call for papers?

4 minutes read

The traditional call for papers route has become a tale of academic spam and missed connections, the research community deserves better.

For my final year undergrad project, I developed something similar to what we know to be Apple Pay today. One of my supervisors said, “Hey, we could get a conference paper out of this.”

I didn’t even know what a paper was.

It was a classic student situation. I didn’t understand the mechanics of the submissions process and my supervisor had to guide me towards submitting to a few conferences he knew.

It wasn’t until a few years later when I was being bombarded with call for papers emails that I realized the opposite scenario happens too.

The further I progressed, the more conference mailing lists I was added to. Conference organizers would share their mailing lists with other organizing committees, who would pass their lists on. Like a lot of researchers, I started receiving cal for papers emails left, right and center, from fields more and more distantly related to my work. At some point I just started archiving Call for Papers as they came into my inbox.

A whole lot of missed connections and academic spam

The current system isn’t just an annoyance for researchers, call for papers is problematic for conference organizers too. Conference organizing committees know they’re jostling for space in researchers’ inboxes. So in case their call gets missed, they’ll often send it 4 or 5 times.

And it’s not just early-career researchers that they struggle to reach.

Academics change affiliation – and therefore email address – so organizers are at the mercy of out-of-date mailing lists. I didn’t realize the extent of this until we built a call for papers tool within Ex Ordo. We had a conference chair try to upload a Call for Abstracts mailing list with 20,000 emails on it. When we looked at the emails on this list, a huge amount of them had been shut down or were for academics who’d long finished their roles.

The organizer was sending a call for abstracts to emails that were ten years out of date.

And, as we discovered, this wasn’t an isolated case of a conference mailing list full of dud email addresses. This was fairly standard.

To try to overcome these missed connections, organizing committees often crosspost their conference announcements to as many channels as they can: their conference mailing list, listservs they have access to, and the mailing lists of contacts willing to do them a favor and forward the call.

The call for papers problem is a vicious circle

When you’re a researcher on the receiving end of these calls, it can feel like you’re getting crossposts and reminders about conferences from all directions.

Leaving predatory journals and bogus conferences aside, whether call for papers from legitimate research conferences constitutes academic spam or not is up to how the receiver views them. (Your point of view may depend on how many you get.)

But either way, the more of them you get, the easier it gets to ignore them. Which means organizers need to keep upping their send rate to maintain their submissions.

We built Ex Ordo to help researchers carry out peer review in a lovelier way. But as we’ve grown up, we’ve realized that we can’t think of peer review in isolation. When we looked at the technology researchers use for conferencing, we realized there’s a whole landscape out there that’s needed.

Finding a solution for the research community

As a first step, we focused on solving the call for papers academic spam problem.

The result is PaperCrowd, a free platform to help extend the reach of researchers on both sides of the fence. Researchers hoping to find people to attend their conferences, and researchers looking for the right conferences to submit their abstract to.

PaperCrowd gives them a tool to help them peer over the fence and see what’s going on. It gives early-career researchers access to academic conferences beyond those their supervisor knows about, and it takes chance – and missed connections – out of the Call for Abstracts equation.

In the short term, it’s about cleaning up researchers’ inboxes and helping organizers announce their academic conference in a much simpler way. But there’s something bigger at play.

Forging stronger research connections

Around 200,000 research and academic conferences take place around the world every year. PaperCrowd helps researchers use these conferences to connect with other researchers. Specifically, other researchers whose work they’re interested in.  

There are certain experiences we should never digitize. Falling in love is one of them.

Discussing your work over coffee with a fellow researcher is another.

These conversations run much deeper than anything that happens on social media – for me, the conference IS the social network of the research world. Researchers set up postdocs because of chance meetings they have at conferences. And these bonds make research more powerful around the world.

What we’re aiming to do with PaperCrowd is to begin connecting researchers before the conferences even happen. By being able to add and search specific research topics, researchers will be able to find and follow other researchers with a view to connecting with them in person at a conference.

Imagine getting an email to say there’s an upcoming symposium on your research topic and being able to see that someone whose work has inspired yours is interested in attending.

Ultimately, PaperCrowd will only be as useful as the research community makes it. But if our community starts to use it to share and find conferences, cut down on academic spam and make connections across their fields and interests, it could change the game for research and academic conferences.

Wouldn’t that be powerful?

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Conference organizer? Add your conference to PaperCrowd and get it in front of the right researchers around the world.

Looking to publish? Search for conferences on PaperCrowd and share your work with a wider community.

Paul Killoran

Back when Paul was an engineering student, he didn’t even know what a conference paper was. Then he dipped his toe in the research conference world, realised how awful the software was, and decided to build Ex Ordo. Sometimes, life can be funny like that.