‘Predatory conferences’ stalk Japan’s groves of academia


Special to The Japan Times

“Predatory conference” organizers now stalk Japan’s groves of academe, preying on unsuspecting researchers. These conferences are inferior events that contribute little to the field of academic knowledge but generate plenty of revenue for organizers’ bank accounts. Academics, some simply naive but others willingly participating, risk hurting their wallets and reputations by presenting at such conferences and helping to organize them.

Attendees paying with university research budgets often don’t mind the cost. One university instructor, who didn’t want to be named, said he attended an expensive for-profit conference because his university had paid, but that he would have balked at paying the high fee out of his own pocket. In the case of public universities, these research budgets are covered by taxpayer money.

Predatory conferences are for-profit, low-quality academic meetings that exploit researchers’ need to share and publish their research. According to Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, they’re similar to the established problem of predatory publishing. Predatory publishers will, for a fee, publish any article by posting it to an online journal. Beall maintains a blacklist of publishers to avoid on his Scholarly Open Access blog.

As Beall explains by email, “The problem is that predatory conference organizers are removing merit, selectivity and peer review from the system of academic evaluation and replacing it with a product that pretty much anyone can purchase: speaking slots at ‘scholarly’ conferences.”

The sting

Conferences held by respected academic societies use a peer review system to weed out weak submissions. Typically, experts rate submissions, allowing organizers to select the best. Predatory conferences, on the other hand, accept nearly every proposal to maximize revenues.

To test conference standards, I submitted some fake proposals created with the online tool SCIgen, which generates nonsensical but grammatically correct papers. Graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed it to produce papers that “maximize amusement, rather than coherence,” which can then be used to test conferences suspected of low standards.

SCIgen titled my first paper “Visualizing Cache Coherence Using Extensible Models.” The first two sentences read: “Thin clients must work. After years of important research into kernels, we confirm the theoretical unification of systems and consistent hashing, which embodies the confusing principles of networking.” The remainder of the paper is equally incoherent.

Using the pseudonym Sandor Edelstein, Ph.D., and listing him as a professor at the nonexistent Fukuoka Educational College of Knowledge (FECK), I submitted the paper to six suspected predatory conferences. All six accepted it.

Using various pseudonyms, I submitted similar fake SciGEN papers to a total of 12 conferences from six organizations. Ten were accepted, by the American Society for Research (ASR), Global Academic Network (GAN), Higher Education Forum (HEF), International Academy Institute (IAI), and Universal Academic Cluster (UAC). All these organizations regularly hold conferences in Japan.

Sophie Tsang, director of ASR’s Conference Department, expressed regret in an email that its reviewer didn’t “take the appropriate responsibility.” She added, “We will strengthen our coming review process by enhancing the sense of responsibility of the reviewers as well as the qualification of them.”

GAN and HEF failed to reply with any explanation of how the papers passed their peer review process. An unsigned email from IAI’s conference secretariat didn’t explain their peer review system, but argued that conference participants “would not do such a pitiful, deceiving and filthy action” as to try to submit a nonsense paper. “We believe in our participants,” the email concluded.

UAC’s conference chair, Banyat Sroysang, claimed one reviewer accepted the nonsense paper while another had recommended rejection. By email, Sroysang explained that he accepted it after a Google search failed to uncover any “bad history” behind “Sandor Edelstein.”

The scams

It’s impossible to say how many predatory conferences take place in Japan. Organizers often group small and disparate conferences together into one event but maintain separate websites for each. For example, IAI, a subsidiary of the Taiwan-based International Business Academics Consortium (iBAC), held four conferences between July 22 and 24, 2015, in four Waseda University classrooms.

Predatory conferences typically take place in Japanese universities, hotels and conference centers every month. Websites for 10 known and suspected predatory conference organizers had 128 questionable events scheduled in Japan between January 2015 and March 2016.

Some advertised events may never occur. One organization, not included in the above group of 10, is the World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology (WASET). It had 111 conferences scheduled for Oct. 8-9, 2015, at the Hyatt Regency Osaka hotel. Citing a need to preserve confidentiality, a hotel spokesperson declined to confirm if WASET had booked any events. However, the University of Toronto issued a scam advisory after WASET falsely advertised a conference as taking place in June 2015.

Attending predatory conferences isn’t cheap. Presenters typically pay $300 to $500. Optional dinners and travel tours can push the cost to $800. These prices can be negotiable. Claiming university budget cuts, I haggled $100 off GAN’s $400 fee and $90 off Thailand-based UAC’s $290 charge.

Conferences organized by scholarly associations typically cost less. The Japan Society of Civil Engineers charges nonmembers a ¥20,000 ($184) conference fee. The Japanese Economic Association charges only ¥3,000 ($28), but researchers must also pay the ¥12,000 ($110) annual membership. The Japanese Association for Language Teaching charges nonmembers ¥25,000 ($230) for its three-day conference.

Holding conferences with as wide a scope as possible increases organizer revenues. About 300 people attended IAI’s four conferences at Waseda University. Assuming everyone paid the $400 early registration fee, the event generated about $120,000.

Costs seem to have been minimal. The conference’s local chair, Waseda University professor Hajime Tozaki, says the school provided classrooms for free. He denies receiving payment for delivering the keynote speech or serving on the iBAC Advisory Board. Presenters received boxed lunches, but attendees I spoke to complained that they looked terrible and tasted worse.

IBAC refused to reveal how many conferences it and its subsidiary IAI hold annually. An Internet search showed at least 28 conferences at 10 events organized by iBAC and its subsidiaries and partners for 2015. More than half were located in Japan with the rest around Asia. IBAC Chair Wenchang Fang, a professor at National Taipei University, and iBAC staff failed to respond to repeated emails asking what happened to conference profits.

The damage

Predatory conferences hurt serious academics in several ways. Presenting at or helping organize predatory conferences can hurt reputations. In 2013, a Nagoya-based university instructor, who didn’t want his name published, had a presentation proposal accepted by an HEF conference in Japan. He then got invited to deliver a conference keynote speech. By 2015, HEF had plastered his photo all over their website, listing him as an “Honorable Chair” or “International Liaison” for 10 conferences.

In a Skype interview, the instructor said that he wasn’t aware that his picture and name had been used so extensively. He added that he nearly lost his job when Beall’s Scholarly Open Access blog criticized his relationship with HEF and his dean blamed him for the bad publicity. At the instructor’s request, HEF removed his name and picture from upcoming conference websites. They’ve been replaced with the names and pictures of other young Japan-based university instructors.

Reputations can also be hurt after publishing research presented at a predatory conference. The iBAC funnels conference papers to a sponsor called Science Publications. It charges authors $350-$525 and is on Beall’s blacklist of publishers to avoid. HEF directs papers to at least six suspected predatory publishers blacklisted by Beall that charge authors between $200 and $300. When asked about these publishers, an unnamed spokesperson replied by email, “It might be our oversight that some of our cooperated parties are not qualified,” adding that HEF would be reviewing its cooperation.

Reached by email, Beall said that publishing in journals on his blacklist could be “potentially damaging to the attendees, whose reputations could be hurt by publishing their work in low-quality, predatory journals.”

Predatory conference organizers also hurt reputations by stealing researcher identities. For example, three university professors listed on iBAC’s Tokyo conference website as members of the “International Committee” said by email that they weren’t aware of the conference and hadn’t given permission for their names to be used. Demands by a Canadian university that employs one of the wrongly listed instructors that its instructor and school’s name be removed immediately went ignored.

Institutions hosting predatory conferences also find themselves preyed upon. In 2014 and 2015, Temple University Japan (TUJ) rented out space to GAN for their Tokyo conference. GAN’s website used TUJ’s logo and listed them as a “Global Partner.” According to a TUJ spokesperson, the use of their name and logo was unauthorized. “We will be reviewing our relationship with them,” the representative said. GAN’s website removed TUJ’s logo and the Italian Culture Institute in Chiyoda Ward will host GAN’s 2016 Tokyo conference.

Unscrupulous researchers can exploit predatory conferences and publishers to get more of the publications required to aid hiring and promotion. While SCIgen’s creators designed the software to amuse themselves, people around the world have been using it to “write” and publish conference speeches. Cyril Labbe from France’s Joseph Fourier University discovered 120 SCIgen computer-generated papers published in 30 conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Honest academics submitting to conferences with stricter peer-review risk seeing their careers wither as less-principled researchers pay to publish and rack up citations and conference appearances.

Authors with controversial views use predatory conferences and journals to legitimize their theories. For example, Beall’s blog criticizes iBAC’s sponsor, Science Publications, for publishing “pseudoscience” related to a miracle cure called GcMAF. Supporters claim the treatment is a cure for cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and AIDS.

Beall’s blog also documents the use of predatory conferences and journals to argue that space dust causes global warming, deny the dangers of asbestos, declare the discovery of extraterrestrial life and warn that Fukushima nuclear fallout is causing thyroid problems in Californian newborns.

Beall warned in a 2012 article in Nature magazine that the work of legitimate researchers runs the risk of becoming “tainted by association” if it appears next to unsound research.

Douglas Sipp, a research specialist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, says he noticed five years ago an increasing number of conferences “which have little actual substance.”

“It should concern everyone,” he says, “as in many cases the costs of travel and registration are paid for using taxpayer money.”


Spotting predatory events in the wild

So how can you know if a conference is predatory? Here are a few questions worth asking:

1) Is a single group organizing conferences in completely different fields? Similarly, is the scope of a conference too wide or are a variety of conferences held together in the same hotel on the same weekend? For example, an “International Conference on Arts and the Humanities” would be little use to most serious academics but great for maximizing revenues.

2) Are submissions accepted too soon? Getting accepted to legitimately peer-reviewed conferences takes time. If a proposal gets accepted in a matter of days, or before the call for papers has closed, it’s worth investigating further before paying the registration fee.

3) Is the conference marketed like a holiday in the sun? Predatory conferences are often held in tourist destinations, advertised through spam and websites resembling travel brochures, and offer tours.

NOTICE: A portion of an earlier version of this story insinuated that The International Academic Forum is a predatory conference organizer. An internal review has led The Japan Times to conclude this was misleading and, as a result, all references to The International Academic Forum have been removed from this article. The Japan Times apologizes for the insinuation.