Red-Flag Conferences

March 26, 2009

In the past few years, a new type of "scholarly" conference has sprung up. Held at exciting resort destinations, such as Las Vegas, these conferences offer attendees the chance to both present and publish papers at one event. Some even allow you to present a paper in absentia, so long as you have paid the conference-registration fee.

At first glance these conferences may appear legitimate, yet an analysis of their materials and Web sites reveals numerous red flags.

I found one group that sends out a series of garish, unsolicited e-mail messages to publicize its Las Vegas conference and associated journals. Everyone who goes to the meeting must pay a presenter fee, even merely to attend. In 2008 that minimum fee was $325. The name of the journal in which presenters will publish their papers is already preprinted on the online conference registration form. Participants are instructed not to e-mail the organizers before the event for any reason, even if they have a scheduling conflict for presenting their papers.

The conference sessions are decidedly low-tech, with only overhead projectors (no PowerPoint) available for presenters. The journals containing the participants' articles are printed in limited numbers and handed out at the registration table. The organization's six journals have official-sounding titles but are not generally known, despite its assurances that they are listed in Cabell's Directory of Refereed Publications and Ulrich's International Periodicals Directory. Most of the six journals are difficult to access through standard print and online sources.

The organization, the conference, and its associated journals are run by the same few people. The actual program, which provides detailed session times and paper titles, also contains such unprofessional statements as "win million $ in gambling" in Las Vegas, and "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!"

Similarly, another organization sends out unsolicited e-mail messages inviting professors to submit papers for a Las Vegas conference. According to its rules, the $330 registration fee must be paid in order for a paper to be published, but papers can be presented in absentia — which certainly leaves the impression that academics are buying publication.

The same person is listed as an editor of both of that organization's journals, neither of which is readily available. The conference organization does not list any college affiliations; rather, it is run by a venture-capital group that is identified at the bottom of the conference Web site. This for-profit group even offers a 110-percent money-back guarantee for the registration fee. Satisfaction — and apparently journal publication — is guaranteed.

Yet another Las Vegas conference combines conference registration and paper publication in one $340 fee. This organization's Web site explains that while the fee is for "full registration," attendees can seek as much as $100 in reimbursement if they sign up for tours of area attractions that run during conference days. In effect, a college that pays a professor's registration fee for this meeting may be unknowingly subsidizing tours that encourage him or her to play hooky. In addition, this organization is run by a professor who lists his own academic affiliation on the conference Web site to establish its credibility. However, registrants are asked to send their conference forms and fees to an address that turns out to be a private residence.

Those are just three examples of recent red-flag conferences. They may seem like harmless enterprises, but, they are damaging to the academic profession as a whole, and their negative impact extends across the disciplines.

When a conference charges attendees a single fee that includes attending, presenting a paper, and publishing it, then the organization appears to be selling publication opportunities. That impression is reinforced when the conference has a very short period for paper review, or when the journal containing participants' articles is already printed and ready to be handed out upon arrival at the registration table.

Conference organizers, no matter how legitimate, do not generally provide a public accounting of their finances. Yet it is easy to see how a conference could generate a huge pool of cash from prepaid fees for registration and publishing when there are hundreds, even thousands, of participants. Costs can be kept low by offering only basic facilities for presenters and limiting organizers' contact with participants before the event. At the same time, demand can be stimulated by selecting an attractive location and signaling potential presenters that they can easily get published if they pay the registration fee.

The demand for such conferences is not difficult to understand. Professors face significant pressure to present and publish their research, either because of "publish or perish" considerations or from a desire for workplace advancement. Professors who are more established in their fields may simply want to take a break from teaching while enjoying an all-expenses-paid trip to a vacation destination.

No matter the motive, participants who attend such conferences have an incentive to characterize them as important and prestigious. Even professors who come to red-flag conferences with the best of academic intentions can find themselves keeping quiet after they discover the meeting is not what they thought it would be. Would you want to go back to your college and admit that you just presented a paper at a low-quality, or even bogus, conference? Who wants to face the embarrassment, loss of prestige, and possible loss of reimbursement for a trip already taken?

Although understandable, their silence perpetuates the illusion that these conferences are a legitimate academic activity.

More troubling, participants can potentially use the related journal publications to bolster their credentials as they apply for promotions and raises. Colleges that pay registration fees and travel expenses to these meetings become unknowing partners in supporting questionable organizations. And later on, in the tenure-and-promotion process, some institutions undoubtedly find it difficult to challenge the quality of a journal publication when they have already provided financial support to the sponsoring organization.

No checks and balances exist in the academic conference system, and no accountability. Several factors make it difficult to assess the legitimacy of an organization, including changes in its name, inaccessibility of its journal content, and the presence of numerous conference tracks. When conferences are run as for-profit ventures, an inherent conflict of interest emerges between promoting academic scholarship and maximizing financial gain. And the proliferation of those conferences challenges the basic integrity of the promotion-and-tenure process.

Given those concerns, how can faculty members and administrators determine whether a conference is the professorial equivalent of a diploma mill? They can look for warning signs (besides the ones I've mentioned):

  • Frequent extensions, cancellations, and postponements of conference deadlines or of the meeting itself;

  • Lack of direct affiliation with a recognized college or university;

  • The same person is simultaneously the leader of the organization, the conference planner, and the journal editor;

  • One or more organizers have a Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail address rather than one ending in "edu";

  • Excessive references in the call for papers and on the conference to the attractions of the conference location;

  • Use of awkward or outdated language, such as "diskette," in the conference materials and overuse of words like "fabulous";

  • And an abundance of flags, globes, and multicolored text in conference announcements and journals. The very use of flags in the conference materials or on its Web site is a red flag.

Colleges and universities need to set minimum standards and decide which, and how many, of those warning signs are sufficient to indicate that a conference has failed the test. Administrators and department heads should review faculty travel requests and ask for documentation about the event and its sponsoring organization, including its call for papers, Web site, registration form, and past conference programs. Given today's economic turmoil, the time is right to set fair and consistent guidelines for assessing the legitimacy of academic conferences.

Individually, faculty members can do their part by refusing to attend red-flag conferences, refusing to submit articles to suspect journals, and refusing to lend their names to organizations that sponsor for-profit conferences. The last thing academics should be doing is bolstering the credibility of those organizations in any way.

Finally, colleges and universities should work together to develop uniform national standards for evaluating the legitimacy of academic conferences. An interdisciplinary, cross-institutional advisory group could devise national guidelines. A national panel could be established to require conference organizers to provide full disclosure of their leadership, organizational structure, and finances. That panel could also require that conferences adopt certain policies and procedures before receiving a stamp of approval.

Academic achievement should never be for sale. We do not allow our students to buy their term papers, and we should not allow our professors to buy their publications, either.


Margaret Brooks is a professor and chair of the economics department at Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts.