Academia Milestones: My First Invite from a Predatory Conference

At the moment I’m in the depths of my PhD. My days are spent agonising over reviewer comments, simulations that don’t work (and some that do!) and tutoring undergraduate students.

But after all that, it’s nice to get noticed and receive the recognition that I deserve. Today I was invited to speak at the 2nd World Biodiesel Congress & Expo (Theme: An innovative approach towards the green fuel). It was refreshing that my expertise has finally been acknowledged as shown by the high praise I have been given:

You are the person with significant experience in this field to deliver a speech of touchstones which ignite young minds to overcome the challenges in the field of Bioenergy.

It truly is a measure of my inescapable brilliance that I have significant experience in the field of bioenergy even though I have no experience in the field of bioenergy!\sarc

At this stage I was already suspicious because of the unsolicited nature of the email, the poor grammar and the fact that my private email server had highlighted it as spam. I thought I would have a look at the conference website. Looks science-y enough. At this point I am amused that it is organised by ConferenceSeries LLC. By adding LLC to the end of an organisation’s name makes them instantly sound untrustworthy (e.g. imagine Toastmasters International LLC).

About once a month, I find myself browsing the Retraction Watch blog. It makes me feel better about myself because while my progress may be slow, at least I haven’t resorted to scientific misconduct. It means that I’ve also become quite familiar with some of the unsavoury aspects of scientific publishing in the neoliberal era. The most unpleasant aspect would have to be predatory publishing. Predatory publishing is where open-access journals charge authors exorbitant fees to have an article published while not performing the necessary services associated with real journals (the Wikipedia article frequently cite Jeffrey Beall whose articles now redirect to “page not found” following the disappearance of Beall’s list in January).

A quick google search for ConferenceSeries shows “conferenceseries predatory” as the first predicted search term. ConferenceSeries is part of the spaghetti umbrella of brands that make up the OMICS corporation which has been sued by the US Federal Trade Commission for deceiving researchers.

Predatory conferences have false editorial boards and organising committees that list reputable academics who did not consent or may not even be aware that they are listed. Registration fees are excessively high and non-refundable (the motive of the organisers becomes a lot more clear). There are also huge numbers of conferences scheduled all over the world (e.g. let’s catch up at ICAMAME 2030: 32nd International Conference on Aerospace, Mechanical, Automotive and Materials Engineering in Penang, Malaysia! \sarc)

This is all bad for science. Emerging researchers are mislead into paying for low quality conferences that may be more harmful their reputation than doing nothing. Low quality work enters the public sphere where it can be seized upon by members of the public unaware of the swindle going on, especially considering that these “papers” are open-access, while real papers may be only accessible by purchase or subscription*. This could be a disaster for public policy where politicians rely on flawed information to make decisions (I’m surprised climate change denialists haven’t picked up on this and started sending papers to OMICS, after all they’ve got the money to do so)!

Researchers have long made a sport out of trolling predatory publishers and conferences with absurd papers from SCIgen, chicken chicken chicken, iOS autocomplete and my personal favourite: get me off your fucking mailing list. What sort of abstract should I send in? Here are some of my ideas:

  • A criticism of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive which quickly descends into an anti-unionist rant.
  • Argue that bioenergy is unethical from a plant rights perspective.
  • String together some Donald Trump/Deepak Chopra tweets (“The quantum consciousness of the biofuel, quantum, is so very tremendous. It’s just great”).
  • Ignore it and get back to doing my work.

When low quality papers are in circulation, public confidence in science is eroded, governments cut science funding and life gets harder for scientists producing quality research. Science is already broken with the obsession over researcher metrics and the publish or perish mantra. The inevitable result is easy submissions to fake journals, which only breaks science even further.

What a shame. The open-access model is great in principle, but has been cynically abused by greedy corporations like OMICS. I think the answer may lie in unconditional taxpayer funding of scientists whose work is exclusively published in government research repositories  which are freely accessible to citizens and businesses. Quality of work would still be monitored by blind peer-review and funding would be allocated for replication studies. Science is far too valuable to be left at the mercy of the merciless private sector. All the best to the US FTC as they hopefully grind OMICS into the ground.

*(hint: never pay for a paper, find a uni student to download it for you or use the interloan service that university libraries provide)
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