Yellow tape reading "Danger" outside a construction site

What’s a spamference?

Earlier today, I was sent the following question by a reader of this blog:

I want to know what you mean when you say “spamference” in your article [presumably this one]? How can a scientist know if a conference is genuine of spamference?

A spamference, simply put, is a conference that serves primarily to generate income for its organisers, rather than to facilitate scholarly communication. Spamferences resemble bona fide conferences in many respects, but they offer no value in exchange for their exorbitant fees: even a good paper will probably to go unnoticed in the noise of mediocre research; delegates are unlikely to receive any helpful feedback; and their academic credibility will not be enhanced in the eyes of more experienced scholars. Some hallmarks typically associated with spamferences include an unusually broad remit, a tempting location, high registration fees, lack of academic affiliation, predatory marketing tactics, and little evidence of quality control.

Topic & scope

The calls for papers that spamferences issue are very broad, and they often covers domains that are not generally thought of as belonging to the same disciplinary field. A typical call for papers, drawn from my inbox, advertises an “international conference on educational administration and leadership, Intercultural education and Teaching Greek as a Second or Foreign Language”.  Generally speaking, regional conferences with a broad scope are OK, but legitimate conferences that address a broad geographical area tend to be specialised.

Sham calls for papers and conference websites are likely to stress that the conference is ‘international‘, and the event is often designated as a ‘world conference/forum on x’. Spamference organisers take pains to draw prospective delegates’ attention to famous keynote speakers, but a closer look raises questions. Often, the list of speakers will indicate that they have been ‘invited’ (as opposed to ‘confirmed’).  On other occasions, there may be vague references to (unnamed) senior academics or Nobel laureates. On at least one occasion that I am aware of, notable academics were listed without their knowledge, so you may want to confirm that the conference has a history of attracting academics of such caliber, by double-checking against the CVs of previous plenary speakers.

Location

The conference is likely to be held in a resort, rather than hosted by an academic unit that is related to the study of the conference topic. Alternatively, it may take place in a famous academic location, such as Oxford, but the conference organisers will not be associated with the prestigious institutions located there.

Many spamference calls seem to originate from China, but I have also received invitations from India, Turkey and some former Soviet Republics. This by no means suggests that academic conferences in these countries are to be avoided. Rather, I believe that the large number of shady conferences there is associated with the rapid expansion of their higher education sectors, since spamferences tend to cater to the needs of academics who wish to take advantage of opportunities for rapid advancement in a vibrant and dynamic higher education context.

Fees

The registration fees for spamferences are unjustifiably high, especially when compared against the registration fees for established, reputable conferences in the same region. I have received invitations for conferences charging $2,000 or £1,500, which go straight to the round filing cabinet, but you should apply such guidelines in a context-sensitive way. For instance, conferences organised by universities in Greece generally charge a registration fee of under €100, so a conference in Athens asking for €300-400 should raise suspicions. Similarly, given the current exchange rates for the Turkish Lira and the Chinese Yuan, I would be wary of conferences in these countries that charge significantly more than equivalent events in the UK or the USA.

Affiliation

Spamferences are not affiliated with reputable institutions, such as universities, active research centres, professional associations or learned societies. Sometimes, they are organised by entities that might hide their mercenary objectives by operating as non-profits (or equivalent), but despite appearances, the organisers do not engage in any other scholarly activity, such as sponsoring research, publishing journals etc. ‘Research’ organisations that hold several conferences per year are particularly suspect, especially if the same people seem to be involved in more than one conference.

Alternatively, spamferences may work in tandem with predatory journals. In such an arrangement, the conference will be affiliated to a journal, the sole function of which is to provide a venue for publishing the conference papers. Although it is common for legitimate academic journals to publish special issues drawing on material that was presented in a conference, what distinguishes a predatory arrangement are the permanence of the connection, as well as the attempt to include as many papers as possible (e.g., by running multiple issues drawing on the conference). In addition to providing a veneer of legitimacy to the operation, it is likely that the journal extracts article processing fees, thus generating additional income for the organisers.

Call for papers

Most tellingly, spam communications are used to solicit papers. Often, these address researchers by name, praise their scholarship (perhaps by mentioning an article randomly drawn from the addressee’s CV), and even offer a high-visibility post, such as a panel chair, in an attempt to flatter. You can read a typical example of such an email communication here.

The conference organisers often promise that all papers will be included in the proceedings (usually just a bloated .pdf file), and they are likely to stress that the publication will be allocated an ISBN. This practice seems to reflect the rough discrimination criteria used for measuring academic productivity in some emerging higher education systems. Authors may be required to submit fully formatted papers in the first instance, which seems to suggest that little, if any, peer-review is envisaged.  If possible, you may want to download previous ‘volumes’ of conference proceedings in order to form an independent judgement of the quality of scholarship that gets accepted, and of the organisers’ professionalism.

~

I should note that none of the criteria in this list is a very good indicator of conference quality in and of itself. For instance, it is not unusual for academic organisations to at least try to find attractive locations for their annual events, and I would hate to smear every conference organiser who has ever over-enthusiastically described their conference as ‘world-leading’. However, I would very strongly recommend exercising due caution when multiple criteria are present. So I guess what it all boils down to is: Caveat Doctor.

Post Scriptum: I cannot take credit for creating the term ‘spamference’. To the best of my knowledge, the term was coined by Tim Kovacs, who has put up a great webpage with information about bona fide and shady academic conferences.


Featured Image: “Danger” by Shawn Carpenter @ Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

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