Objective To systematically map the scholarly literature on predatory conferences and describe the present state of research and the prevalent attitudes about these conferences.
Methods This scoping review follows Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines. Four databases were searched (PubMed/Medline, Web of Science, Scopus and ProQuest Social Sciences Premium Collection). In addition, the included studies’ reference lists were scanned for additional papers not found in the searches. Peer-reviewed publications were included irrespective of study design. Letters and commentary were included if they were peer reviewed. Editorials and literature reviews were excluded.
Results From 809 initial publications, 20 papers were included in the review, from 12 countries and covered a wide range of science disciplines, from nursing/medicine to energy/technology and computer science. More than half were empirical and published after 2017. In most papers, a definition of the term predatory conferences was put forward. Spam email invitations with flattering language were the most common characteristics, and the conferences were often hosted by unknown organisations that used copied pictures without permission. High fees, lack of peer review, and a multidisciplinary scope were signal features. All papers explicitly or implicitly suggested possible reasons for participating in predatory conferences. Some reasons were related to the overall context of academic work, the nature of predatory conferences (eg, researchers falling prey to misleading information about a conference or choosing a conference based on an attractive location) and the personal characteristics of researchers. Only one paper reported empirically identified reasons for participating in predatory conferences. The three countermeasures proposed most frequently to deal with predatory conferences were increasing education, emphasising responsibilities of universities and funders, and publishing lists of predatory publishers associated with conferences.
Conclusions This review identified a scarcity of research concerning predatory conferences. Future empirical as well as fully analytical research should be encouraged by funders, journals and research institutions.
- medical ethics
- statistics & research methods
- qualitative research
Data availability statement
All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information.
This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/.
Statistics from Altmetric.com
If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.
Strengths and limitations of this study
This scoping review is the first to synthesise systematically the scholarly peer-reviewed literature on predatory conferences in different settings.
It identifies gaps in the existing literature and based on the literature suggests important countermeasures to prevent the further spread of predatory conference practices.
Limitations of this review include the scarcity of empirical research concerning predatory conferences, and the review therefore relied on theoretical papers, such as commentaries, which are less rigorous and make generalisations difficult.
Predatory journals have significantly infiltrated the academic publishing world, and many papers have raised awareness about the perils of publishing in such journals.1–6 Predatory journals and conferences are often perceived as two sides of the same coin; nevertheless, literature on predatory conferences (PC) is noticeably lacking.7 Academic conferences are essential to researchers and an integral part of scientific communication, as they offer an opportunity for sharing research findings, building networks and obtaining valuable new information.8 Conferences are also important for stakeholders, policy-makers and students.9 For graduate students, presenting at an international conference is often a required part of the curriculum.10 The number of PC has increased worldwide, and reportedly, they are becoming more sophisticated in concealing their nature as for-profit businesses with little or no regard for academic values.11 12 They often spam researchers with unsolicited email invitations, excessively praising the researcher’s latest published paper.6 13
These predatory enterprises are driven by a for-profit business model (while sometimes presenting themselves as not-for-profit), charging fees to the attendees, and disregarding proper peer review, instead allowing anyone who pays to become a speaker.14 15 Because PC appear to be legitimate scientific conferences, they deceive the attendees or their organisations into spending large sums for conference registration, travel and accommodation. They also inflict a significant risk of damage to future researchers or policymakers who might unknowingly build their subsequent work or policies on the purported ‘scientific results’ shared at such conferences.16
The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) recently carried out a large global study, Combatting Predatory Academic Journals and Conferences. The IAP (and author SE who was part of the working group carrying out the study) examined the available resources and found a striking focus on the publishing side of predatory practices and very little knowledge about PC in comparison. Not only is there a lack of knowledge on why students and scholars attend PC, but also about criteria that determine if a conference is predatory and how many they are. Alarmingly, it has been claimed that PC might outnumber legitimate ones, which, if true, should call for a dedicated effort to counteract them.17 It thus became clear that there is a pronounced need for a targeted research approach mapping the existing literature and identifying gaps in it.
Reviews have previously focused on predatory journals and conferences. One review examined the main features of the open-access model, its potential consequences, and its relevance to the scientific community.18 That review summarised the literature on predatory journals and conferences and described how this practice threatens the reputation of the open-access movement as it deviates from best editorial standards and ethics. The authors urge educational and ethical actions to enhance scholars’ awareness of this serious threat to scientists’ reputation and ultimately patients’ safety. One narrative review aimed to create awareness of PC in biomedicine, to describe the tactics they use to trap researchers and to suggest how neophyte researchers can learn to delineate PCs from legitimate ones.19 However, these reviews were not performed systematically and had limited scope and focus. To our knowledge, this scoping review is the first to systematically synthesise the literature solely on PC.
Objectives and research questions
The overall aim of this scoping review was to map systematically the scholarly literature on PC to describe the present state of research. We also posed the following research questions (RQ):
RQ1: How does the literature define PC?
RQ2: What are the reasons attendees have for participating in PC?
RQ3: What are the actual consequences for those attending PC, if any?
RQ4: What are the suggested countermeasures?
This study used the established scoping review methodology by Arksey and O’Malley,20 later developed by Levac et al.21 This study used the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-Scr)22 (see online supplemental file S1).
According to Arksey and O’Malley, there are usually six stages in undertaking a scoping review: (1) identifying the RQ; (2) identifying relevant studies; (3) study selection; (4) charting the data, (5) collating, summarising and reporting the results, and (6) consultation. According to the original framework, step 6 is optional.
Stage 1: identifying RQ
See earlier aim and RQs.
Stage 2: identifying relevant studies
Two of the researchers (TG and SG) developed the initial search strategy, then further discussed it with SE and MO. TG created the actual searches in collaboration with two medical librarians. The librarians completed a preliminary test search in Scopus to identify whether studies appropriate for inclusion exists.
The databases searched were PubMed/Medline, Web of Science, Scopus and Social Sciences Premium Collection (ProQuest). In addition, the included papers (stage 3) were later scrutinised for any references to studies meeting the inclusion criteria but not found in the searches. The databases were searched from inception to 23 September 2021.
Stage 3: study selection
The identified publications were exported and collated in EndNote (Clarivate) to remove duplicates. The screening process used the Rayyan software platforms to facilitate the review.23 This review process included a traditional screening approach of (1) titles and abstracts and (2) full text. Two reviewers (TG and SG) independently screened the papers based on predetermined inclusion and exclusion criteria for the title and abstract review (table 1). TG and SG discussed all disagreements in the process of reaching a consensus. The resulting papers were then carefully read in full, and TG and SG again discussed any disagreement about inclusion or exclusion to reach consensus.
Stage 4: charting the data
We confirmed the publication’s relevance to the aim of the review and extracted the data (table 2). The framework included bibliographical information (ie, author(s), country, title, journal and publication year), study type and objectives. For each publication, we included in the table any definition of PC adopted, any empirical conference characteristics (eg, country, setting and research area of focus), reasons found for attendees to participate in PC, the experiences of attending such conferences, and any proposed countermeasures aiming to discourage their proliferation. All authors charted data from publications by using the data extraction framework. Two of the reviewers (TG and SG) discussed discrepancies until consensus was reached.
Stage 5: summarising and reporting the results
Since a scoping review aims to map the concepts underpinning a research area and the primary sources available, the aggregated findings provided an overview of the research rather than an assessment of the individual studies’ quality. This study summarised data descriptively in line with the screening and extraction form. All authors discussed the results and agreed on the final groupings of the results.
Stage 6: consultation
Arksey and O’Malley20 suggest an (optional) consultation stage with stakeholders and experts to provide insights beyond what is reported in the literature. They recommend consultation exercises with stakeholders or experts throughout the process, from preparation to the dissemination of the findings. Since one of the authors (SE) is a member of an international working group formed by the IAP,14 as an expert working with combatting predatory academic journals and conferences, we opted to include step 6 in this review. SE was part of the whole process. Some IAP working group members (n=2) read a draft of this article and commented on it.
Patient and public involvement
Patients and the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.
The electronic searches yielded 809 records; after the removal of duplicates, screening of the remaining 419 records ensued. Assessment of titles and abstracts based on the inclusion criteria resulted in 38 papers remaining. The full texts of all these papers were obtained, and after applying the inclusion criteria, 18 records were excluded as 6 were editorials, 3 were not in English, 6 did not provide data relevant to PC, 2 were not peer reviewed and 1 was not available as a full-text document. As such, 20 peer-reviewed papers were included in the review (see PRISMA, figure 1). Scanning these papers for further references to research on PC did not result in any additional records.
Most (n=17) of the included papers were published between 2017 and 2021. The corresponding authors were from 12 different countries, where one-fourth were affiliated to the USA,24–28 followed by India,29–31 Denmark,32 33 Hungary,34 35 Saudi Arabia,36 Iran,37 UK,38 Australia,39 Switzerland,40 Canada,41 Hong Kong42 and the Czech Republic.43 PC attract multidisciplinary attention. Corresponding authors’ disciplines included nursing/medicine,26 27 34–36 41 psychiatry,29 39 energy/technology,31–33 37 dentistry,38 cancer,30 pharmacy,24 finance,43 bibliometrics28 and computer science.25
Eleven studies collected empirical data,25 26 28 34–36 38 40–43 where one half used a quantitative approach, one qualitative. Nine papers were theoretical,24 27 29–33 37 39 All papers were peer reviewed.
RQ1: how are PC defined?
Of 20 papers, 14 defined PC,24 26 29–31 33 34 36–41 43 2 of these used definitions by others33 39 (table 3). Five papers did not define PC,27 28 32 35 42 and one paper suggested not to define them.25 Most definitions varied between addressing them as fraudulent or just of low quality, and between being ‘fictitious’ and providing services wanted by the attendees, but they converge in pinpointing the exploitative profit motive as the driving force. Three attributes regarding PC were described: means of invitation, organization and low quality. The common way of inviting to conferences were by email which used flattering language26 27 30 33 36 38; had grammatical errors and/or non-scientific language27 38; often two contact persons and no physical address, only email addresses29 38 42; were lacking details of the meeting26 27; and often targeting junior or novice researchers.29 34 36
Another common attribute was related to the organisation holding the conference. The organisers were often not well known and used names or copied pictures without permission.24 29 33 36 38 40–42 Fast track (guarantee) acceptance was often described28 29 37 42 with high fees,26 27 36 39–42 or sometimes low fees that were not refunded if the conference was cancelled.24 29 The conferences were often situated at relatively small hotels, never in conference centres, colleges or universities.24 29 Another attribute concerned the poor-quality standards. Peer review was often missing25 27 29 32 33 37 38 42; the academic subject matter of the PC had a wide and multidisciplinary scope27 29 32 36–38 42, ; and the conference was organised for profit with little concern about scientific value.29 34 39 41 43
RQ2: reasons for participating in PC
All 20 papers24–43 explicitly or implicitly suggested possible reasons for participating in PC (table 4). We identified reasons for this as relating to the overall context of the academic work, the nature of PC, and the personal characteristics of researchers. Academic related reasons involved a publish or perish climate focusing on the quantity rather than the quality of research dissemination,25 27 29 30 32 36 37 39–41 and the lack of support structures including guidance and control measures, encouraging and enabling researchers to make informed choices.24 26 28 31–35 40 42 Reasons related to the nature of PC involved researchers falling prey to deceptive and misleading information about conferences,24 27 29–33 35–39 41–43 choosing conferences due to attractive venues and exotic locations,31 32 36 37 42 opting for hassle-free submission and review processes,25 42 and the opportunity to attend as a chair or invited speaker.24 31 40 Reasons relating to personal characteristics involved researchers overlooking the moral and scientific implications of attending PC due to inexperience,29 32 36–41 43 naivety,34 36 43 ignorance,32–34 37 vanity27 33 or indifference.25 36 42
Only one of the papers, Alnajjar et al36 reported an empirical study on reasons for participating in PC. The qualitative study explored experiences of faculty members in nursing and medicine who had unknowingly fallen prey to PC. Study participants described how novice, naïve and carrier-driven researchers are at higher risk of being conned into PC participation. Some peers overlook the conference value consciously and continue to travel on professional development grants, whereas others, who cover the costs with personal funds, are believed to be less likely to opt for PC.
RQ3: consequences from having attended a PC
Nineteen papers did not report or discuss the consequences of participating in PC.24–35 37–43 Just one empirical paper36 reported a qualitative study in nursing and medicine. Seven faculty members with varying backgrounds that had fallen prey to PC in Australia, Spain, the USA, Switzerland, Singapore and Italy were interviewed about their first-hand experiences. One consequence described was disappointment. They described how the conference organisers initially seemed interested in their research, but as soon as they arrived at the venue, they found overcrowded small rooms, no sessions and workshops in parallel, and a much disorganised venue. The conference did not follow the programme or was reduced from three to 2 days, and the well-respected experts announced as keynote speakers were not there. Some attendees were asked to moderate sessions just before starting. The organisers never revealed their identities, and when contacting them, it appeared to be a remote-control operation. Many conference attendees were so disappointed that they left the conference.
Another disappointment involved cost; attendees were sometimes forced to book the accommodation through the organisers, in effect doubling the price. Another consequence concerned the risk of being subject to deceitful practices. Several of those who attended experienced that the organiser stole their identity and, without consent, used their pictures and personal information to portray them as part of their conference team. They also feared finding their conference abstract published on the conference webpage. Several interviewees expressed disappointment over a valuable academic opportunity being taken away from them, and they felt betrayed and angry because their reputation and credibility were at stake. Therefore, they did not want to attend any conferences at all in the future.36
RQ4: what are the suggested countermeasures?
Six areas of countermeasures were suggested. The most important countermeasure described was education for all researchers and mentorship for beginning researchers and academics.26 29 31 32 34 36 38 39 41 43 A workshop with training exercises that could enable attendees to demarcate between legitimate and fake events was suggested.36 The second and third most described countermeasures were that steps must be taken by universities and funding institutions when evaluating qualifications of candidates for promotions or funding,24 33 36 41 and to publish lists of PC and organisers with red flags.27 30 33 43 Accreditations for conferences (eg, through an impact factor or designation that the conference meets specific criteria) were also suggested,28 35 40 and by using diagnostic questions to assess PC to avoid submitting to them (self-help tools).33 38 42 The last suggested countermeasure described was that more empirical research is needed.36
Our mapping of the research on PC shows a small, although growing body of literature on the subject. Compared with the issue of predatory publishing, PC, although a widespread and pervasive problem, receive surprisingly little attention.19 44 The IAP suggested that COVID-19 caught most of the attention of stakeholders since 2020, neglecting the alarming threat of predatory practices.14 This is unfortunate, as the problem seems to affect the global research community, regardless of discipline. There is now a worry that the pandemic is actually fuelling predatory online conferences.29 Yet, the literature typically consists of editorials, letters and the like, while the empirical scholarly literature on the subject consists of only 11 papers. Clearly, there is a need for more research to be funded, performed and disseminated.
Definitions of what constitutes PC vary. They have been described as fraudulent, of low quality, as being ‘fictitious’, and providing services wanted by the attendees. There is agreement in the literature, however, that PC have a profit motive that is the driving force. In light of this, the scholarly community needs to develop a common understanding of what constitutes true PC that should never be supported by attendance, be given legitimacy, and so on, and to delineate what constitutes a quality conference in which scholars should aspire to participate (going beyond avoidance of the unethical).45 This might leave us with a grey zone of conferences that are of moderate quality but do not reflect the characteristics of PC. Established professional societies might also publish their materials from conferences without stringent quality checks.46 An important aspect is that many research organisations and funders pay for scholars to attend conferences to disseminate their research; these stakeholders should pay more attention to the quality of academic meetings paid for by them and could initiate quality control programmes. The literature is consistent in showing that good measures of quality are the communication style of organisers and various characteristics of how the conference is organised.
Reasons for participating in PC are to a large extent the same as for participating in legitimate conferences, for example, to present and discuss research with colleagues and to further one’s career. The main reasons for participation in PC suggested in the literature are researchers being subject to deception by conference organisers and researchers being unaware of PC or indifferent to the moral and scientific implications of attending them. This involves researchers who are inexperienced and often lack the support structures for choosing appropriate conferences in a publish or perish culture. Remarkably, the empirical evidence is limited to one study supporting only a few of these suggestions. Further, we believe that research on reasons for participation in PC must consider the value of conference attendance and conference publications, which vary between disciplines. For example, we recognise that conference presentations and conference publications have little value when competing for research grants or academic positions for some disciplines. In contrast, conferences in, for example, computer science are considered as important as publication is in established journals.28 Thus, it might be that lack of awareness of PC and naivety are more common reasons for participating in disciplines where conference publications hold little merit, while ambition and indifference might be more important driving forces in other disciplines. Understanding researchers’ intentions when choosing to attend PC is important in designing effective counterstrategies. The lack of empirical research in this area calls for further research.
It is especially noteworthy that we found only one article addressing the consequences for people who have attended PC.36 Thus, we have no knowledge about possible benefits of attending PC or whether scholars face negative consequences from presenting their research at these conferences. This knowledge would be of value in assessing the probability that people will continue to attend these types of conferences because of perceived gains or choose not to attend them because of the costs imposed on individual researchers and their research organisations from attending. A better understanding of reasons why scholars present at these conferences would lead to strategies for educating academics, universities and funding institutions about PC. There is a need for much more research on this.47
Our fourth RQ relates to this last point, about what we should do to counteract or ‘combat’ PC. While we have identified an argument for placing some of the responsibility on higher education institutions and funding agencies, the included surveyed literature calls mainly for educational efforts. Undoubtedly, these actions are complementary, and both are needed. We agree with Pecorari42 that disregarding ethics ‘can be countered by awareness-raising, and the deliberate choice can be countered by sanctions or at least the withholding of rewards’.42 However, while we found a lot of educational material in the scholarly literature pointing to the threat, several self-help tools are available to help individuals assess conferences, for example. Think.Check.Attend.48 49
This review identified a scarcity of empirical research concerning PC but revealed characteristics of these conferences and reasons why scholars submit abstracts to them. These conferences are low quality, with some researchers labelling them as fraudulent; invite potential attendees and presenters through spam emails (often with flattering language and grammatical errors); include limited, if any, peer review of abstracts; and are poorly organised. Reasons for participating in PC include the overall nature of academic work, with a climate in many settings that rewards quantity rather than quality of research dissemination, and lack of mentoring and support of beginner scholars to make informed decisions about conferences at which to present their research. Other reasons were not realising the conference was low quality, deciding to attend because of location, or overlooking the implications of presenting at these conferences. While education of novice and experienced scholars about PC is critical, the review also suggested that universities and funding agencies should not be supporting presentations at PC. Consistent with calls for lists of predatory publishers is the need for a similar list of organisers of PC. In addition to costs of attending these conferences, the academic and career implications for researchers who present at PC have not been identified in the literature. This is an area needing further research and it should be encouraged by funders and research institutions.
Data availability statement
All data relevant to the study are included in the article or uploaded as supplementary information.
Patient consent for publication
Ethical review was not required as no human subjects were the object of the study. Findings will be disseminated through professional networks, conference presentations and publication in a scientific journal.
The authors would like to thank medical research librarians Ebba Warén and Agnes Kotka at Uppsala University for valuable help during the development of the search strategy. We would also like to thank Abdullah Shams Bin Tariq and Diane Negra for reading a draft and giving expert input to the study.
Contributors Design of the review: TG and SG. Data collection: TG. Data analysis and interpretation: TG, SG,SE and MO. Drafting the article: TG, SG, SE and MO. Critical revisions of the article: TG; SG; SE and MO. All authors approved the final version to be published. I TG is the garantor and accepts full
responsibility for the work and/or the conduct of the study, had access to the data, and controlled the decision to publish.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.