As the pressure to present and publish becomes more and more intense, many scientific conferences have appeared, some of which are less legitimate than others. This means that it is becoming more important for academics, especially more junior and more inexperienced ones, to be alert to predatory conferences or, ‘spamferences’. In this blog post, you will read about what spamferences are, and how you might tell them from bona fide academic conferences.
What is a spamference
This post was prompted by a question was sent by a reader of this blog, who wanted to know more about spamferences:
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 or spamference?
The purpose of any bona fide academic conference is to facilitate scholarly communication. A spamference, however, is a gathering of academics that primarily aims to generate income for its organisers. 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 characteristics 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 cover domains that are not generally thought of as belonging to the same disciplinary field. A typical call for papers, drawn from my inbox, describes a conference that will focus on “the presentation of novel and creative research results in the fields of theoretical, and applied Arts, Social Science, Economics, Humanities, Literature, Business and Management”. Generally speaking, regional conferences with a broad scope tend to be OK, but legitimate conferences that address a broad geographical area are usually 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.
Spamferences are likely to be held in resorts, rather than hosted by an academic unit that is related to the study of the conference topic. Alternatively, the spamference organisers might rent space in famous academic locations, such as Oxford, in order to create the impression that they are 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.
The registration fees for spamferences are unjustifiably high, especially when compared to 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, I was recently involved in organising an academic conference that took place in Austria, and the registration fee we charged was just under €100. This is more or less typical for the region. So a conference in Austria asking for €300-400 should raise suspicions. It stands to reason that registration fees in other places of the world would have to reflect local costs and exchange rates. I would therefore be very wary of conferences that are organised in developing countries, where costs tend to be lower, and charge unjustifiably high registrations fees, as these are clearly aiming to maximise profit.
Another thing to look out for is a fee structure that seems designed to maximise income. Many bona fide conferences use flexible fee structures in order to subsidise junior academics, or to encourage early registration, so it is not uncommon to have multiple fees listed. However, many spamferenes have elaborate fee structures that include categories like ‘second paper’, ‘second author’, ‘extra pages’ and so on. The purpose of these categories, especially when they correspond to three-digit fees, seems to be income generation, and they are a definite red flag.
Spamferences are not affiliated with reputable institutions, such as universities, active research centres, professional associations or learned societies (not that all universities etc. are reputable, but let’s keep that can of worms shut for the time being). 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 organising committee 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 with a journal, which exists only to provide a publication outlet for the spamference presentations. 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
One of the most telling features of spamferences is that they will use spamming tactics to solicit papers. They usually harvest names and email addresses from university websites (the recent graduates lists are especially attractive targets), so it is not uncommon for them to address researchers by name. The conference organisers will typically praise the recipient’s 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, or a poorly edited collection), 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. It may also be a good idea to check whether the conference is indexed predatory journals and conference lists, such as this one (h/t Marc Jones). But even if it is not, being cautious is always a good thing, and the old adage must apply: 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.
About this post: This post was originally published in March 2014, in response to a question sent by a reader of my blog (www.achilleaskostoulas.com). It was last updated in March 2020 (updated links, changed layout, corrected typos). The featured image is “Danger” by Shawn Carpenter @ Flickr and it is shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.