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The proliferation of questionable conferences

18 July 2018

A federal lawsuit puts a spotlight on for-profit conferences that target academics.

Upon receiving an invitation to give a keynote address at a conference, Jim De Yoreo was having doubts. The chief scientist for materials science in the physical and computational sciences directorate at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory had reviewed the program for the Seventh Annual Congress on Materials Research and Technology in Berlin and wasn’t convinced that his expertise fit with that of the other attendees. So he emailed the organizer of the meeting, Conference Series, to relay his concern and decline the invitation. In response, a Conference Series representative urged that De Yoreo reconsider: Many students would be in attendance, and they would learn a lot from his keynote.

De Yoreo agreed to make the trip to Germany—a decision he would come to regret. “It was clear that first morning I was there that there were virtually no students,” he says. “I had the feeling that it was little more than a money-making scheme.”

De Yoreo is not the only academic who has felt misled by Conference Series. A federal district court in Nevada is considering a request by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to bypass a trial and issue a summary judgment against the company, its president, and two sibling organizations for deceptive practices. The FTC’s complaints focus on predatory publishing but also include misleading claims regarding the hundreds of academic conferences the companies convene annually. In November 2017 the Nevada court granted a preliminary injunction against the companies, ordering them to halt their deceptive practices, make an accounting of their finances, and preserve their records.

To determine whether Conference Series has changed its ways since the injunction, Physics Today examined several recent and upcoming physical science meetings hosted by the company and spoke with past and future participants. The analysis reveals sloppiness and deception, although the offenses don’t seem quite as egregious as some of those described by the FTC. What’s clear is that Conference Series is not the only offender. In interviews, researchers describe an increasing bombardment of email invitations to for-profit conferences of questionable reputation, a trend that’s unlikely to end regardless of the Nevada court’s decision.

Cut-and-dried deception

The FTC’s investigation of Conference Series, along with its sister companies OMICS Group and iMedPub, began in 2015 after numerous complaints of predatory publishing. The companies are registered in Delaware, Nevada, and California but are based in Hyderabad, India, where president and director Srinubabu Gedela runs the business. In an August 2016 court filing, the FTC reported that the companies marketed a suite of supposedly rigorous peer-reviewed journals that in reality had no review process and accepted almost anything. Once a paper was accepted, the companies would inform contributors of a publishing fee of up to several thousand dollars. Between August 2011 and July 2017, the companies pulled in at least $50.7 million in publication and conference registration fees, according to the FTC.

Although the investigation concentrated on journal publishing, the FTC also found that the companies misled academics about conferences, which cost hundreds of dollars to attend. Prominent researchers claimed that their names and photos were being used to promote their attendance at upcoming meetings, even though they had never agreed to appear. “OMICS! Those bastards. I had nothing to do with them on this conference in Valencia,” reads one typical email cited by the FTC. Beyond the government investigation, reporters and curious researchers found that conference organizers sent emails indiscriminately, including to academics with no expertise in a particular meeting’s topic, and accepted virtually anything, including a paper written using the Apple iOS autocomplete feature.

More than half a year after the injunction, Conference Series appears to have cut down on falsifying speaker lists, at least for some of its physics meetings. Several people who are plugged as “renowned speakers” on conference websites confirmed that they were planning to attend. Barbara Jones of IBM Research says she agreed to speak at the Fifth International Conference on Theoretical, Materials and Condensed Matter Physics in Los Angeles, though she was surprised to learn that her talk is featured on the website. Ivan Božović, a condensed-matter physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Yale University, also says he plans to give a talk.

But the company doesn’t appear to rush to correct the record when participants drop out. Simonetta Di Pippo, director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, verified that she had initially planned to attend and serve on the organizing committee for the International Conference on Planetary Science and Particle Physics, to be held in Boston in August. Then her plans changed, and she emailed Rachael Cruz, the purported contact person for the conference, on 26 April to withdraw. Yet Di Pippo still is listed as a keynote speaker on the website. A Twitter account supposedly belonging to Cruz plugged the keynote three weeks after Di Pippo’s email. Another keynote will cover “a unification of matter and light” by an “independent research scientist.”

The program manager for the condensed-matter conference, which will be held at an Embassy Suites hotel near Los Angeles International Airport in November, is listed as James Taylor. In an 18 May email to Physics Today, Taylor wrote that he was on a business trip with limited internet access. He recommended speaking with his assistant, a Mr. Keerthi, who on the phone said that “technical mistakes” had led to the FTC action. He said that since the court injunction, the company has reduced the cost of registration, particularly for invited speakers. Subsequent attempts to reach Taylor and other listed liaisons, including Shayera James, Jessica Williams, and Robert James, were unsuccessful. An agent calling from a Henderson, Nevada, phone number who identified herself as Anna Wilson said in heavily accented English, and with long pauses after questions to confer with a colleague, that the company outsources the representatives who help arrange the conferences. Neal Tomlinson, the attorney representing Conference Series and the other companies in the FTC litigation, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The webpage for the condensed-matter meeting is rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. The contact email addresses have multiple domain names, such as,, and The meeting is touted as a “Certified Event” for Academic Conference Excellence. Such certification is issued by the European Scientific Institute, which also publishes journals and organizes conferences. The institute and several of its purported leaders didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls inquiring about its certification process; one academic who is listed as part of the “ESI Team” said his involvement with the institute consisted of one presentation at an ESI conference. In any case, the upcoming Conference Series meeting on condensed matter doesn’t appear on the list of certified events.

Other offenders

Although Conference Series has attracted the attention of the FTC, it doesn’t have a monopoly on promoting suspicious-looking academic meetings. Several of the researchers who planned to attend a Conference Series event shared other emails inviting them to similar gatherings. Dispatches tend to have common elements: a salutation that exposes that English isn’t the writer’s first language (for example, “Greetings for the day!”); a conference site that’s near an airport rather than downtown; and a nonsensical or broad title.

Conference Email 1Conference Email 2Conference Email 3Conference Email 4
Four example conference emails. Click for full-size versions

Between the FTC accusations and the questionable content on the conference websites, it’s easy to assume that the conferences themselves fall far short of the experiences provided at meetings of professional societies. The responses of past participants indicate that this is often but not always the case. Karl Ulrich Kainer, chair of materials technology at the Hamburg University of Technology in Germany, reports an experience similar to De Yoreo’s, although Kainer’s was at Citations International’s recent Materials Science 2018 meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Nearly half the scheduled presenters didn’t show up,” Kainer says. There was no structure, no social program, and no chances for networking, and the meeting was held in conjunction with conferences on medicine and other topics at the same venue.

Other scientists had better experiences. Robert Huber, a 1988 chemistry Nobel laureate, says he “had good interactions with other speakers and attendees” at a June 2017 Conference Series event in Rome, though the audience “was smaller than I had hoped.” And Mark Fromhold, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, UK, says he was satisfied with a recent Quantum World conference in Shanghai hosted by the Chinese company Bit Congress. “I found a number of talks in the session that I was chairing to be of high quality and stimulating,” he says.

Conference overload

Nearly every researcher contacted for this story shared their amazement and displeasure at the volume of conference invitation emails they receive. “In the last three years, I have been bombarded by invitations for keynotes at such types of commercial conferences,” Kainer says. Božović estimates he’s received three dozen invites so far this year.

Despite the questionable nature of the events, researchers don’t necessarily dismiss the solicitations. Some actually appreciate the broad scope of the meetings, which gives them a chance to get exposure to other disciplines. Sometimes the venue is local or in a city that the invitee plans to or wants to visit for other work reasons. Financial considerations help too. “Conference Series is paying all my expenses,” Božović says of the November meeting in Los Angeles. “I’ll visit Caltech, USC, and UCLA while I’m there.”

A couple of researchers, while not lauding the for-profit conferences, argue that so-called reputable meetings are not necessarily any more useful. “They are almost all just profiteers, if you ask me,” Božović says. “Everyone is upset with the exponential explosion in the number of journals and conferences and with the fees they charge.” He apparently subscribes to the viewpoint put forward by education policy scholar Kevin Carey in the New York Times: “The difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.”

For now, IBM’s Jones still plans to attend the Fifth International Conference on Theoretical, Materials and Condensed Matter Physics in November. She says she will stay alert for attempts to wangle more money from her, such as a fee for getting published in the conference proceedings. “If it turns out to be a dog of a conference, I’ll just go home.”

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