HAPPY NEW YEAR!
This is an intriguing recent article from The New York Times (sent to me by a faithful Reader). Because I know a Department Chairman, and another tenured Professor –– who were recently both duped into paying and attending such meetings, one in Las Vegas, the other in Miami –– I can assure you that the “sales pitch” by these fraudulent companies sounds VERY authentic. 🙂
And many of us receive one to two dozen emails EVERY DAY, asking us to contribute to these fake journals and attend these fake meetings.
A Peek inside the Strange World of Fake Academia
Kevin Carey DEC. 29, 2016
The caller ID on my office telephone said the number was from Las Vegas, but when I picked up the receiver I heard what sounded like a busy overseas call center in the background. The operator, “John,” asked if I would be interested in attending the 15th World Cardiology and Angiology Conference in Philadelphia next month.
“Do I have to be a doctor?” I asked (because I’m not one). I got the call because 20 minutes earlier I had entered my phone number into a website run by a Hyderabad, India, company called OMICS International.
“You can have the student rate,” the man replied. With the 20 percent discount, it would be $599. The conference was in just a few weeks, I pointed out — would that be enough time for the academic paper I would be submitting to be properly reviewed? (Again, I know nothing about cardiology.) It would be approved on an “expedited basis” within 24 hours, he replied, and he asked which credit card I would like to use.
If it seems that I was about to be taken, that’s because I was. OMICS International is a leader in the growing business of academic publication fraud. It has created scores of “journals” that mimic the look and feel of traditional scholarly publications, but without the integrity. This year the Federal Trade Commission formally charged OMICS with “deceiving academics and researchers about the nature of its publications and hiding publication fees –– ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.”
OMICS is also in the less well-known business of what might be called conference fraud, which is what led to the call from “John.” Both schemes (fake journals and meetings) exploit a fundamental weakness of modern higher education: Academics need to publish in order to advance professionally, get better jobs or secure tenure. Even within the halls of respectable academia, the difference between legitimate and fake publications and conferences is far blurrier than scholars would like to admit.
OMICS is on the far end of the “definitely fake” spectrum. Real academic conferences evaluate potential participants by subjecting proposed papers and presentations to a rigorous peer-review process. Some 15,000 people attend the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, for example, and only about a third of submitted proposals are accepted.
In October, a New Zealand college professor submitted a paper to the OMICS-sponsored “International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics,” which was held last month at the Hilton Atlanta Airport. It was written, using the autocomplete feature on his iPhone, which produced an abstract of jibberish that begins as follows: “Atomic Physics and I shall not have the same problem with a separate section for a very long long way. Nuclear weapons will not have to come out the same day after a long time of the year he added the two sides will have the two leaders to take the same way to bring up to their long ways of the same as they will have been a good place for a good time at home the united front and she is a great place for a good time.”
The paper was accepted within three hours.
An OMICS employee who identified himself as “Sam Dsouza” said conference papers are reviewed by its “experts” within 24 hours of submission. He couldn’t provide a list of its reviewers or their credentials.
Having dispensed with academic standards, OMICS makes money on volume. Its conferenceseries.com website lists hundreds of so-called academic meetings, many at vacation destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. For example, on Dec. 1 and 2, the “2nd International Congress on Neuroimmunology and Therapeutics,” the “13th International Conference on Vaccines, Therapeutics and Travel Medicine: Influenza and Infectious Diseases,” and the “International Conference on Clinical and Medical Genetics” were all held, simultaneously, at the Hilton Atlanta Airport.
Stacking multiple fake conferences at the same hotel is a common practice, says Jeffrey Beall, a tenured University of Colorado Denver librarian. He maintains a website for identifying “predatory open access scholarly publishers” that masquerade as scholarly journals, but are actually in the business of pumping out worthless articles and exploiting scholars with hidden fees. “You just rent a hotel, make up a name and stand around while everyone is reading their papers,” Mr. Beall says. “It’s easy money.”
Mr. Beall’s list, which has grown to 923 publishers from 18 in 2011, also includes a British company called the “Infonomics Society.” Like OMICS, it publishes a raft of journals, 17 in all, with legitimately dry-sounding titles like “International Journal of Sustainable Energy Development.” Mr. Beall calls Infonomics an “impostor scholarly society” that is “designed to generate as much revenue as possible.” All 17 journals are run by a single person named Charles Shoniregun out of a modest two-story attached brick home in the outer suburbs of London.
Infonomics also sponsors a series of conferences. But when I looked into one of them, the “World Conference on Special Needs Education,” or W.C.S.N.E., the story was more complex than I had expected.
Like many predatory publishers, the Infonomics website for W.C.S.N.E. has a certain word-salad, a shaky-command-of-English-syntax quality –– familiar to anyone who reads the spam folder in their email. “The Infonomics Society has an established reputation for promoting research esteem that is valued by research community,” it says. The W.C.S.N.E. is attended by “Policy Makers and Stakeholders who care deeply about bringing creative, innovative and rigorous learning practices barriers.”
The W.C.S.N.E. paper submissions guidelines warn that all papers must be strictly limited to “a total of 4 to 6 pages.” That includes all figures, tables and references. Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall, says that this is “a red flag.” Education research papers are typically much longer, he notes — the tables and reference pages alone can run to double digits. But short papers are easier to pack into a single “journal.”
The website included a long list of “Program Committee members” with impressive academic credentials, as well as “Keynote Speakers” for the coming conference, scheduled to be held in August at Temple University, the W.C.S.N.E. host for the last three years.
But when I contacted those identified as committee members and speakers, many immediately replied that they had no idea they were on the website and had no affiliation with the W.C.S.N.E. The announced keynote speakers told me they were nothing of the kind. Within 24 hours of my inquiries, someone removed their names and biographies from the site and replaced them with a page that said “Keynote Speakers to Be Announced!”
A spokesman for Temple, Hillel Hoffmann, said the university condemned “predatory open-access publishing” and said no university money had been spent on the conference. He said that special-needs learners in the community, including adult literacy students, had attended parts of the conference and had benefited from it, but that none had paid to participate. He added that the W.C.S.N.E. would no longer take place at Temple.
Richard Cooper, the director of disability services at Harcum College, a private two-year institution in Philadelphia, helped create W.C.S.N.E. along with Mr. Shoniregun. He says he has no involvement with the paper selection process or financial aspects of the conference, simply serving as an organizer, presenter and master of ceremonies. He described it as a worthwhile gathering of scholars, many of whom live in Africa and India and pay hundreds of dollars in conference fees to attend.
The papers presented at previous W.C.S.N.E. conferences don’t appear to have been composed using the autocomplete function on an iPhone. They mostly describe small qualitative studies and surveys that examine well-established ideas, break little new ground and use statistical jargon to make their findings seem more complicated than they really are. They very likely would be rejected by the American Educational Research Association. But they are also well within the bounds of what gets published in many scholarly journals that, while not prestigious, have never been called a fraud.
Barba Patton, an education professor at the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, Tex., defended the W.C.S.N.E. unreservedly. “I have attended ten to fifteen of the conferences in the U.S., Canada and in Europe,” she wrote via email. “I have no concerns about the website. You must remember that the conference reaches many who are using the British English rather than the American.”
Mr. Shoniregun did not respond to messages sent to his several email addresses. But he appears to have created a kind of hybrid conference that combines the shady, volume-first internet marketing practices of OMICS with the more quotidian inattention to academic rigor that characterizes much of legitimate academia.
Take the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), for example, by all accounts a legitimate organization. This year, Peter Dreier, chair of the Urban and Environmental Policy department at Occidental College, described how he submitted a proposal full of jargon, misquotation, non sequitur, and general academic gobbledygook to an international conference sponsored by the 4S. It was accepted. “I look forward to meeting you in Tokyo,” the panel organizer wrote.
Lucy Suchman, a sociologist at Britain’s Lancaster University and the president of 4S, acknowledges that the abstract review process is “not perfect” and that she would have rejected Mr. Dreier’s submission. But, she notes, 4S reviews hundreds of submissions every year with an “assumption of good faith.” It would not have occurred to them that someone of Mr. Dreier’s standing in academia was engaged in such an “unfortunate prank,” she said, emphasizing the overall high quality of 4S presentations.
There are real, prestigious journals and conferences in higher education that enforce and defend the highest standards of scholarship. But there are also many more Ph.D.-holders than there is space in those publications, and those people are all in different ways subject to the “publish or perish” system of professional advancement. The academic journal-and-conference system is subject to no real outside oversight. Standards are whatever the scholars involved say they are. It is all “a blurry, grey area.”
So it’s not surprising that some academics have chosen to give one another permission to accumulate publication credits on their CV’s and spend some of the departmental travel budget on short holidays. Nor is it surprising that some canny operators have now realized that, when standards are loose to begin with, there are healthy profits to be made in the gray areas of academe.
Correction: December 30, 2016
An Upshot article on Thursday about the rise of fraudulent academic conferences misspelled the surname of a spokesman for Temple University who said that the “World Conference on Special Needs Education,” which had drawn notice for its seeming lack of rigor, would no longer take place at the university. He is Hillel Hoffmann, not Hoffman.
Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America. You can follow him on Twitter at @kevincarey1.
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A version of this article appears in print on December 29, 2016, on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Fake Academe, Looking a Lot Like the Real Thing. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe