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Dubious conferences put the ‘pose’ in ‘symposium’

It was a proud moment for me as a scientist. A few years ago, on a random Tuesday morning, I opened my laptop and found an email inviting me to speak at an international scientific conference in Dalian, China.

“Wow!” I thought. “Someone has heard about my work! I’ve never been to China! This will be a life-changing, career-benefiting experience!”

I was so excited that I showed my colleague at the next desk. “Look!” I said. “I’ve been invited to speak in China!”

Without saying anything, she quickly searched her own email. The result was a whole “Deleted Files” folder full of invitations for her to speak at international conferences.

“These are like junk mail,” she explained. “I get these every day. I think a lot of scientists do.”

I didn’t understand. Of course I know about junk email—nearly everyone does, except maybe my mother, who forwards me anything with the subject line “This simple step could save your life!” But this was something new and confusing, at least to me. Junk conferences? How would that even work? Were these scams intent on pocketing registration fees, or did they lead to actual conferences one could attend?

I started noticing the emails every week. Summits! Conferences! Symposia! I was invited to Hong Kong, to Thailand, to Australia! One email even assured me that “‘Berlin,’ the host city, is among the most coveted tourist destination.” I’m guessing the writer was unaware of the implicit dubiousness of putting “Berlin” in quotation marks.

But I didn’t really think much more about it until a few weeks ago, when I received an email from someone named Monica inviting me to speak at a vaccine conference in Beijing. Just for fun, I perused the obligatory list of distinguished speakers Monica had already lined up, and I found something strange: the name of someone I knew. Someone sitting at his computer, 10 paces from my own desk. Not only was he listed as attending the conference, he was chairing a session.

So I strolled down the hall to ask him how he came to chair a session at this conference. I suppose his answer shouldn’t have surprised me.

“I’m doing what?” he asked.

Apparently when Monica contacted him, he had replied to ask whether the organizers would pay for his travel costs. Rather than answer his question, she went ahead and listed him as a speaker. Then she wrote later to ask him to chair a session. He didn’t reply. He is now scheduled to chair a session. (He tells me he has now asked Monica to remove his name from the conference schedule, but as of this writing, he’s still listed.)

I hadn’t considered this aspect of the possible scam. Even if you’re savvy enough not to send your credit card number, a predatory conference (has there ever been a more mismatched pair of words?) can attach your name and affiliation to itself, hoping to appeal to more attendees. It’s not quite theft, and it’s not quite identity theft; let’s call it legitimacy theft.

To find out more, and at the risk of ending up a session chair, I replied to Monica to ask whether her group would pay for my travel costs or offer an honorarium for speaking. A week later she replied, apologizing for her late response and explaining that my email had gone to her spam folder.

Well, I suppose that’s irony.

Monica was pleased to let me know that I could attend the conference for a mere $400—or, if I was willing to pay $1280, I could enjoy “Package A,” which included four nights in a hotel and three dinners. She did not answer my question about travel costs, though I suppose what she wrote is one kind of answer.

I really could not pay a registration fee, I told her, but if they truly needed me to pay it, perhaps they could compensate with an honorarium. She replied that the “congress committee” had agreed to waive my registration fee, which had been recently raised from $400 to $1199 (um, what?). All I’d have to do to speak at the conference was to, in her words, “enjoy Package A” for just $880.

So, to make a long story short, I’m speaking in China next summer.

Just kidding. That’s where my email correspondence with Monica ended. I felt bad for wasting her time (I’m not really cut out for the whole scam-the-scammer thing) but only a little. Thanks, presumably, to my email correspondence with Monica, I now seem to be on every conference email list there is.

My co-workers and I are not the only ones receiving these invitations. When I dove down the Google rabbit-hole to learn more, I found several stories from scientists who had pursued invitations to present at these types of conferences. In many cases, the invited speaker was asked to pay a registration fee. Sometimes the speaker was later told that—oops!—the conference had been canceled for one reason or another, but darn it all, those registration fees just couldn’t be refunded.

Other times a meeting truly did occur, but it wasn’t the global phenomenon the organizers promised. I read one post from a scientist who had traveled to a genetic engineering conference only to find a total of 19 attendees, half of whom disappeared by the second day. The meeting ended up being shortened by a day and a half with no notice, and a majority of the speakers never showed up. Still others wrote about pay-to-play meetings: Scientists had to pay a fee in order to speak, or they were promised an award and were then charged for it.

One online commenter, in response to a post about a scam conference, wrote a longer version of the phrase “You idiots.” He theorized that the scientists who fall for these scams are the same people who mail millions of dollars to deposed Nigerian princes and don’t immediately hang up when an automated voice on a cellphone call announces that they’ve won a cruise.

But I don’t think that characterization is fair. In fact, there’s a huge group of scientists who might not spot the difference between a real conference and a fake one; who might think it’s a good idea to attend conferences they don’t recognize, run by societies they haven’t heard of; and who might think that paying to give a speech or to receive an award is standard practice. Who are these eager but vulnerable people? Early-career scientists.

I’ve certainly been one of them. When I received that first email inviting me to China, I felt the thrill of being asked to present at a conference in a far-flung land. The talk is a feather in your cap, a line on your CV, and a free trip to an interesting place. It can be all too easy to dismiss those things that you know in your gut are suspicious for the possibility of career advancement and adventure.

Recently, as I’ve directed more and more incoming messages to my spam folder, I’ve started to notice that the emails share certain elements. So, in case you’re new to these like I was, here’s a list of red flags to watch out for:

  • An effusive salutation:

“Greetings for the day!”

I’m told that, for some reason, that’s how a lot of these emails start. I even found a wealth of online discussions about fake conferences simply by Googling “conference ‘greetings for the day.’”

  • Excess flattery:

“We are writing to you because you are one of the leading experts in the field of [insert field here].”

Be particularly careful if the field is actually written as “[insert field here].”

  • A cut-and-pasted reference to something you’ve published or participated in—especially if it’s not in a traditional scientific journal but something they clearly found just with Google alerts:

You have been selected for this conference because of your publication "Oatmeal Sprinkle Clown Cookies and My Thoughts on Brexit" in the journal ParentsWhoBlog.com.

  • Overselling the importance of the conference:

Harold and American Name Sally’s World Dominant Meeting of Puffed-Up Scientists is the most respected conference in the history of all possible universes, and it has the scienc-y-est science, and one time it saved a child from a shark oh my goodness.

  • A boastful list of distinguished scientists who have presented at previous meetings or will allegedly attend this one:

The following wonderful, celebrated scientists have already committed, both financially and emotionally, to attending this important meeting:

  • Goliath Sciencedoer (University of Research)
  • Albert Einstein (Him School of Medicine)
  • C. E. Officer (BioTech Company)
  • Spunky Lighthouse (Whatsmypornstarname.com)
  • Smith Smith Smith (College University)
  • Most Real Name (Antarctica Commuter College)
  • Bill Nye (Science Man)
  • Itemization of what you, as an attendee, will receive:

Enjoy seeing your name in a glossy prestigious glossy glossy book! All sessions include coffee cups and maybe cream. Conference proceedings are a thing. Ballpoint pens! We don’t have them!

  • Finally, an unexplained urgency in seeking your reply:

Please, it is important you reply soon to secure your spot. The happening of research is now. If you fail to enroll in a timely manner, your talk will be presented by a colleague who comprehends little.

So let this serve as a warning: Not all conferences are worthwhile. But feel free to let invitations to speak at them boost your ego—even if they’re not legitimate, at least someone thinks you’re worth scamming.

Besides, if there’s anything more impressive than being able to say that you presented at an international conference, it’s being able to say you turned one down.

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