Science
Illustation by René Lapoutre

Predactory journals & fake conferences

How academics get scammed

Illustation by René Lapoutre
Katerina Giatagana paid 300 euros for a conference that never happened. She is not the only one. ‘I didn’t think I could be fooled like that.
6 September om 13:15 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 June 2022
om 12:34 uur.
September 6 at 13:15 PM.
Last modified on June 7, 2022
at 12:34 PM.

Door Lydwine Huizinga

6 September om 13:15 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 7 June 2022
om 12:34 uur.

By Lydwine Huizinga

September 6 at 13:15 PM.
Last modified on June 7, 2022
at 12:34 PM.

Lydwine Huizinga

Academics’ spam folders are filled with invitations from fake conferences and journals. Sometimes, an email escapes the spam filter and when it does, you’d better look out. It’s almost impossible to tell which invites are real and which one aren’t. Third-year medical student Katerina Giatagana fell for one. 

‘The money I lost isn’t even necessarily the worst part’, she says. She’s mainly creeped out that she gave the scammers so much information. She can’t undo any of that. ‘They have my personal information. Who knows what they’ll use it for.’

It all started last November. Giatagana received an invitation to an oncology conference. It landed in her regular inbox, slipping through her spam filter. ‘The invitation specifically referenced the research I’ve done, the department I worked at, and why they approached me.’ Because of these details, she never even considered that the conference might be fake.

Fake

Ever since an article she helped write was published, Giatana’s spam folder had been filling up with publication requests from magazines and invitations to conferences. This didn’t surprise her. ‘After all, my name was on the publication.’ However, they were all clearly fake. ‘I didn’t even read them.’

That was really strange, I’m just a medical student, I’m nobody

But because this email had slipped through the spam filter, Giatagana did end up reading it. ‘I was really enthusiastic; they asked me to present on the topic that I’m really passionate about.’ 

She responded to the message, after which followed an extensive exchange with the organisers of the conference. ‘We talked at length about my research and about the presentation I’d be giving. This meant I wasn’t suspicious at all. We exchanged a total of fifty emails. In hindsight, it’s kind of admirable how much time the “organisers” spent on talking to me’, she says.

Ambassador

She would participate in the conference as a student ambassador, which meant she was eligible for several discounts and perks. In exchange, she was asked to promote the conference to her network. She did: ‘I felt responsible and passionately promoted it everywhere.’

II put on my fancy clothes and sat down in front of my computer, But nothing happened

She asked fellow students and supervisors if they wanted to join the conference. ‘Fortunately, nobody was interested. I would have made me feel so much worse in the end.’

She didn’t identify the small red flags that showed something was wrong until afterwards. ‘My parents and friends wondered if the conference would really be taking place in London, considering the pandemic. It did kind of sound like a risk: planning a May 2021, London conference in November of 2020. But I was so enthusiastic that I thought it would all work out.’

Here’s what to do if you receive emails from a journal you’ve never heard of:

  • Ask your colleagues if they’ve ever heard of it
  • Check the journals name on ThinkCheckSubmit
  • Ask Trentacosti and her team for help, even if you’ve already been scammed: they can also provide legal support

Strange

The fact that the organisers were so happy with her participation was also a little strange, Giatagana knows now. ‘But back then I didn’t think it was weird at all. I’d signed up early, so I thought they were working on finding more people.’

She didn’t become suspicious until she was asked to act as a moderator at the conference. By then, it had become clear that it would take place online. ‘That was really strange. I’m just a medical student, I’m nobody. That’s when I finally realised that something was wrong.’ She said she didn’t want to be a moderator, and the organisers told her it was fine. 

That was the last she ever heard of them. With just a few days to go until the conference, the student received no more information, and she didn’t know how she was supposed to log in to the conference. ‘The day of the conference, against my better judgement, I put on my fancy clothes and sat down in front of my computer. But nothing happened.’

Cheated

For the first few days, Giatagana didn’t talk to anyone about what happened. ‘I felt so cheated, so disappointed. I’d completely lost my faith in humanity; I started doubting absolutely everything. And I was so ashamed.’  

By now, she’s realised that she does want to do something. That she should. After all, she’s not the only this has happened to. ‘I think it’s really important to shine a light on this, to prevent it happening to others.’

Experienced academics fall prey to predatory journals too

This particular scam has been popping up more often lately, and that’s a problem, says Giulia Trentacosti, open access expert at the University library. ‘Not just students, but experienced researchers can fall prey to fake conferences or predatory journals’, she warns.

Predatory journals

‘Predatory journals and fake conferences are really cunning’, she says. ‘These predatory magazines look convincingly real: they have a proper website and a believable group of editors.’ Another thing: just because some journals don’t mention publication costs on their website, doesn’t mean they won’t send you an invoice afterwards, warns Trentacosti. ‘Not mentioning their fees until the very last moment is one of the most used techniques.’

She tells the story of two Groningen researchers who thought they’d been invited to publish an article in the prestigious journal Trends in Immunology. It wasn’t until they’d written their article, failed in their efforts to upload it, and called the journal’s editors on the phone that they realised they hadn’t been asked to write for them at all.

Unknown

The email they’d received came from the dubious Medical Research Archives. The editor wrote they were making a special edition on the subject of ‘trends in immunology’, in the hopes that authors wouldn’t notice the difference and pay a huge publication fee.

Other Groningen researchers paid a lot of money to publish an article in Trauma Cases and Reviews. When they didn’t get a response to their peer review submission and they started noticing the spelling errors in the editor’s emails, they contacted the library. The library enlightened them: they had been scammed by a predatory journal.

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