I first came across the term ‘fake conference’ while following a social media discussion from Convention4you, an annual national conference organised by the Austrian Convention Bureau (ACB) for their partners that took place on 24–25 June 2019. As a result, I was intrigued to learn more about this topic and reached out to my connection at the Salzburg Convention Bureau, Gernot Marx, who attended this conference and shared with me further insights from this session.
Gernot is the Managing Director of the Salzburg Convention Bureau and Vice President of the Austrian Convention Bureau. As part of their yearly Convention4u programme, one afternoon it was dedicated to open topics to be addressed in a ‘convention camp’ format, and these were decided by the participants. Several delegates suggested the topic ‘Fake Conference’ because ACB members had come across this phenomenon in the past 1–2 years, and this turned out to be one of the most highly attended sessions.
Very little information is available online about fake conferences. It appears to be a stable and relatively small trend that has been ‘on the market’ for years now, but with little action to address and eliminate it on a professional level. My first reaction after coming across this topic was to ask industry colleagues, and among even the most seasoned professionals, no one had previously come across this term. There is an entry on Wikipedia about it, referring to fake conferences as ‘predatory conferences’ and emphasising that this is common in the scientific field. If you search on Twitter using the hashtag #FakeConference, you will come across tweets from the scientific community sharing examples and screenshots of invitations they have received to speak or present at such conferences. I also came across an interesting investigative article from a journalist who attended such a conference (the conferences do take place, but we’ll come to this later in the article), presenting interesting insights into the problem and general confusion about the entire issue.
Interestingly, the discussion on Twitter is mainly among scientists, and while this phenomenon affects the scientific community of academia, it also substantially impacts the scientific venues and destinations that build their knowledge hubs and clusters of excellence to attract scientific conferences. When a fake conference takes place, it can damage a destination’s reputation among this large target audience. To understand this better and find ways to stop it from occurring, I asked Gernot about the current state of this trend and what measures can be taken to prevent it from increasing.
What is a Fake Conference?
This is a conference that gives itself the exposure of a well-conducted and well-supported conference, predominantly in the scientific space. These conferences usually book scientific venues, such as universities and advertise them among the scientific community. As the time goes by, it turns out that the conference organisers are selling tickets but not providing sufficient and profound scientific content in the field that they want to serve at that conference (e.g., medical, pharmaceutical) and don’t have professional speakers there. For example, they might use speaker names or companies who don’t have any association with the event or they use the venue’s name and reputation but do not pay advanced booking fees. It comes down to the fact that what is promised at the conference is completely different to what the reality is when it takes place.
There are two possible scenarios for fake conferences. The first one is the lack of scientific substance, and the second one is that it doesn’t ultimately take place. When an academic venue finds out that the conference doesn’t have recognition in the scientific field, they can stop it from happening.
What has triggered the discussion about Fake Conferences at the national conference of the Austrian Convention Bureau (ACB)?
The ACB is interested in addressing this as a key topic in the industry because it damages the image and perception of the meetings industry by not taking it seriously. It not only hurts a supplier but also the entire industry and the associations because they get into competition with the fake conference organisers who target the scientific community.
The second aspect that the Austrian meetings industry is concerned about is that those kinds of fake conferences hurt the scientific image of a destination or the scientific importance and significance of academic venues and universities. When universities allow fake conferences to take place, it leads to damaging the scientific development of a destination.
The fake conferences actually take place. Do you think that the organisers are just not aware that they have a lack of substance in their programme, and perhaps they have good intentions to serve the scientific community?
Scientific conferences are a serious, big business for the destinations, and they must be taken as such. Unfortunately, not everyone takes it seriously from the start to organise a scientific conference with profound academic content.
What should be taken into consideration is that conference topics are esoteric, meaning that they are intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with specialised knowledge or interest, such as in the academic fields. For example, it can be a conference about human space and astronomy that links to a destination that has a scientific infrastructure for education, research and development. If a potential organiser of a fake conference wants to organise a conference about astronomy, it will not be based on profound scientific research, and it will even turn out that it’s about astrology and not astronomy. Hence, it shows a lack of profound scientific knowledge of the subject matter.
Furthermore, the inquiry will often change from the moment the organiser approaches an academic venue and towards what will happen on the day and the actual event agenda. In such cases, venues will find out only shortly before the events, about a few weeks out, that the entire programme has changed and has nothing to do with the specific scientific field it intended to cover. The speakers are not scientists, and the programme doesn’t have scientific proof. As a result, the scientific background of a university and the importance of a scientific field of the university and the destination is taken away, and that damages their image.
The concept of fake conferences is not new. Why have we started to address it just now?
It comes up now because universities made it a topic at the Austrian National Conference Convention4u because it happens.
It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens more and more often. The more publicity a certain scientific subject receives, the higher the competition is between different associations and scientists. So there are people who think that they can make money on the back of it. The academic venues are an ideal ground for this type of conference, but at the end of the day, it’s a fake conference. When you do a background check, the companies don’t exist anymore—no one in the specific scientific field knows about this specific conference or the organisers.
This topic shouldn’t be just for venues to address. Associations should also make it a topic as well. The Salzburg Convention Bureau (CVB) receives requests for proposals (RFPs) for congresses, or associations contact the CVB, and when the CVB asks for further information, it turns out that the potential conference lacks scientific credentials. To submit a bid for a scientific congress by a CVB, they require the support of the local university, for example, and the specific scientific departments because usually they would need to take part in the organisation of the congress. If the CVB contacts the university on behalf of a fake conference organiser (which can be an association or a private company), the venue won’t take the CVB seriously and as a result the entire meetings and events industry.
This trend is just starting. The interest was very high in this session. We noticed that professional congress organisers don’t have this problem that often; it’s more the academic venues, universities and CVBs that come across this.
How do you respond to an RFP that lacks scientific substance?
As a CVB, we are very honest about it, and we tell them that we are not going to bid for it. Some congresses require subsidies and financial aid, which the CVB can decide whether or not to give, but there is also a question regarding whether this bid can be taken seriously or not. Before taking a decision, the CVB will often double-check with the local scientific community and will base the decision on the feedback as well.
Additionally, in the process of background checking, the CVB will double-check with other destinations and the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). The ICCA database is very helpful—you can cross-reference with past events and ICCA members, as well as universities and faculties in that field of the conference, and then decide whether or not to bid for this conference. The CVB will also ask the event organisers to send the history of events, asking whether they have been in contact with other CVBs and destinations in the past. Another source of information is Research Gate, the world’s largest scientific network, which is like the Facebook of science.
Who is in a position to stop it from happening? Are these the CVBs, the scientists, the industry, the venues?
The CVB is in a position to stop it because they don’t even bid for it. That’s also one of the reasons why congress and conference venues should get in touch with a CVB in order to double-check the validity of a conference. On the other hand, if the conference is already pre-booked, and they are holding space at a venue, and the CVB is not involved, the academic venues usually double-check on the scientific meaning and importance of a conference themselves.
Academic venues can also have a clause in their contacts, under the terms and conditions, that the conference taking place on their premises must have an academic purpose. If the conference organisers violate this clause in the contract, the venue can stop the conference from taking place. For academic venues, it’s not about the money but rather the impact on the scientific field.
We’re talking about the scientific significance of an entire destination—it’s not about making a quick profit and renting out rooms. The input you give to that conference and the risk you have in following the bidding process is also taken into account.
Are there other industries, apart from the scientific community, that are vulnerable to the trend of fake conferences?
If we look beyond the association and scientific meetings, then there are corporate meetings and nothing in between. We haven’t seen it happen on the corporate and industry congresses side because these events are paid not just by the delegates but also by the sponsors, and behind that there are companies; therefore, it’s different from the scientific field. Having said that, we still very often double-check intermediaries and corporate clients to determine whether or not they are in fact real clients.
Regardless of the topic of fake conferences, every potential client who wants to be taken seriously needs to have an appropriate website with imprint and clear information about their company. There are many small companies in the events industry, and they should understand the importance of online presence when they contact venues and CVBs, and that they will usually be looked up online before sending a proposal.
Do you think that the trend of fake conferences will increase or remain stable?
It will increase, but the success of it won’t increase. The academic venues will be more precise regarding how they do their background checks about such conferences and if they allow it for their venues. This issue has been on the market for a long time, and nobody has discussed this because for many, that’s considered just a small thing, and venues usually don’t bother as long as the venue hire is being paid. The organisation and realisation of such conferences won’t increase as long as the universities continue to be very strict on the rules and terms and conditions of external conferences they let into their venues. The destinations also can’t allow fake conferences in their fields of excellence because the entire scientific field will suffer from it. From the Convention Bureau perspective, the knowledge hub and fields of excellence of the destinations and its reputation will be damaged if that keeps happening, so we need to address this and stop it from happening.
Photo credit (header): Salzburg Convention Bureau