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Junk Conferences / Spam Conferences / Spamferences / Academic Scams

Tim Kovacs. October 2008.

This page outlines the differences between good conferences, bad conferences and academic scams.

The purpose of conferences

Why would anyone organise a conference?

Why attend a conference?

Most of the motivations above are generally altruistic, but the last two in each list are not. Promoting the organisers' reputations and adding to your CV are not necessarily bad; this is how academia works. However, these four motivations result in a lot of low-quality work being published.

Quality

If your motivation for attending a confernce is to have a holiday or to add (uncritically) to your CV the quality of the conference won't matter much. In contrast, if you attend for the other reasons quality is a major concern. Imagine attending a conference and not making any useful contacts or coming across any good ideas: you would not have not gained much!

You might still consider this conference worthwhile because you got a publication out of it. After all, having publications may help impress your supervisor or thesis examiners or potential employers. Publications will also help your career as a scientist: you will be more likely to get funding, to be promoted, to attract students, to be invited to give talks and so on. However, quality is vital and there is a huge range in the quality of conferences and journals. These days it's possible to get anything published. In fact, in the famous SCIgen affair a computer-generated nonsense paper was accepted by a conference. As a result, publications in themselves mean little; what matters is their quality. In fact, if you publish in low-quality conferences, or, worse, junk conferences, you will find this hurts your reputation more that it helps.

Spam and junk conferences

A spam conference (or spamference) is one which is advertised with junk mail (spam). It is genuinely difficult to reach a large number of researchers in a particular area to advertise a conference, and some organisers of legitimate conferences are tempted into using junk mail. These conferences tend, however, to be lower quality ones, or new (or one-off) events which need to boost their attendence in this way. Well-established, high-quality conferences are well-known in their area and don't need to resort to junk mail. These are the conferences which count most on your CV.

The conferences which send the most junk mail tend to be junk conferences, which have little or no academic value and are only run to make a profit for the oraganisers. Some researchers participate to get a free holiday and a publication but others participate in good faith, not realising the nature of the event. The point of this page is to ensure that you are not one of hem.

Where the money goes

Most conferences charge a fee for attendance which is put toward the cost of running the event. Some events also raise money for a non-profit organisation with which they are affiliated. The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence is an example of such an organisation, and it is a legitimate one, although I don't know whether fees from their conferences contribute to the association.

Some conferences, especially larger ones, subcontract some of the non-academic organisational work. Many conferences, however, are organised entirely by volunteers, although there may be concessions to the main organisers such as free registration. Invited speakers generally get free registration, a contribution toward travel costs, and possibly an honorarium (a small payment). The details of these arrangements are not usually publicised and there is the potential for dubious use of funds, but as each incarnation of a particular conference series is generally organised by different people each year it is difficult for misuse of funds to persist.

Although I see no reason why for-profit conferences cannot be of good quality there are a number of junk conferences which are run solely for profit, and where the quality of work is given little or no consideration.

Warning signs

Here are some warning signs but note that bona fide conferences may show some of these warning signs; in particular many reputable conferences are held in nice places.

Open access journal scams

Recently open-access journals have begun to appear. These journals provide free access to readers on the web and charge authors to publish. This is a big improvement over the traditional model of subscribing to journals since it makes results freely available to all. However, it allows for a new type of scam.

In August 2008 I was invited to join the editorial board of a journal, which is normally quite an honour. I work in the area of the journal but didn't recognise the editor and decided to check him out on the web before replying. It soon turned out this was an open access journal scam, which was new to me. The "publisher" was in fact a single individual at a private address who was attempting to recruit academics to serve on his various editorial boards in an attempt to make them look legitimate and so attract others to the editorial boards and to submit papers. This is what a major publisher does when setting up a new journal, but a major publisher has the resources to do this properly (remember the section on quality!). This individual appeared to be working on his own and apparently is not affiliated with any insitution and doesn't even have a degree. This is something like trying to pass yourself off as a doctor without having gone to medical school.

See also