Legit Conference or Scam?

post by Peter Boyes (2018 cohort)

“I’m embarrassed and disappointed.” That was the opening line of an email to my supervision team and CDT administrators. This email was a reaction to attending a virtual conference in November to present a paper and hear about research in one of the fields that my PhD spans. The conference I had submitted to and was attending, thankfully virtually, appeared to be some sort of scam. I managed to be the first presenter on the first day, but it unravelled after that. A shamefully quick search online reveals “The World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology or WASET is a predatory publisher of open access academic journals. The publisher has been listed as a “potential, possible, or probable” predatory publisher by Jeffrey Beall and is listed as such by the Max Planck Society and Stop Predatory Journals.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Academy_of_Science,_Engineering_and_Technology, accessed 18th November 2021).

In this post I’ll talk through some of the process of writing up and submitting the paper, as many of my peers have done, but will add in some detail of the course my experience ended up taking.

The paper would have been my first, it was a write up of the motivations, method, and findings of the first study in my PhD. This was an exploratory interview study with university project management group members around the decision making process for two capital projects that were (at the time of starting) recently completed at the university. The motivation for the exploration was to inform the next stage of the PhD that would form the bulk of my thesis.

The paper was co-authored by my supervision team. The most input came in supervision meetings, rather than a cowritten/collaborative document from some group projects, they contributed throughout with guidance in the study; the design stage, sounding out planning; the analysis of interview data, namely talking through emerging themes and subthemes, then a second round of analysis; then reviewing a couple of drafts as it was being written. The writing feedback reflected the materials shared with them. The first was mostly a skeleton highlighting a structure that could be used to explore the study, from background and motivation through to methodology, results, analysis and importantly for this study the discussion and future work. Second review was larger with a few of the themes and subthemes drafted. Key comments that came back included refining the lengthy sections into manageable portions with a clearer narrative to them. The main input was adding some more summary subjective qualitative analysis to the themes, partly to save those skimming through from needing to read all the excerpts shared and re-treading my whole journey, and partly to introduce some more subjectivity, some opinion to the data I was presenting, something I needed a push to do with my rather quantitative background in mathematics. Finally, a cut down to reduce the length, cutting some repetition and essentially waffle that had crept in when drafting the sections and finding the narrative. Their guidance on my first paper was hugely valuable and informed some of the earlier design stages of my second study.

As mentioned earlier in this post, the paper was a write up of my first study, an exploratory one that laid the foundation for some more directed reading into the literature, and ultimately to the main study I am designing/carrying out now based around group decision making. This main study is addressing one of the future directions of research suggested by the paper in incorporating metadata and context to data that is presented to decision makers.

I was finishing up my first study and getting stuck into the write up process, looking for a suitable place to try and publish or conference to try and engage with, both to present and to find people doing research in the same domain as me to hear from. There was some self-imposed pressure after not finding or picking one out earlier in the study process to find a conference to submit to. I jumped at what looked like a great opportunity, it was a tailor-made conference for my paper/study, “Decision Theory and Decision Support Systems Conference”.

WASET have a paper submission and feedback platform on their website. You create a log in, submit your details and paper or abstract drafts for any of their conferences, and then communication with the organisers are done with messages on platform rather than over emails. All seemed easy to me, just some administrative boxes to tick. These messages and the platform cover most communication: paper has been sent off for reviewer comments; submission status to check back in on; updates or reuploads of submissions with revisions. My submission was initially under their abstract-to-full-paper option, it worked well to get a deadline to sort out my paper to around 80% done and the abstract off to them. This came back quickly, the reviewing of abstract had been completed and I could upload my full paper when ready with the second deadline now in place. That was submitted a couple of weeks later. I had feedback from a moderator on the platform that there were no formatting issues and that they may be in contact after further reading. Comments from reviewers eventually came back and were about removing the questions in the discussion section, and the pieces lifted from the main body introduction section into the abstract. This seemed like minimal feedback, a little odd as from hearing what some of my peers had been through, I was surprised at small changes. They seemed stylistic requests of the conference, but some rephrasing and tidying up and I was done. The paper was accepted. Chalked it up to a strange one but happy to have my first paper in somewhere and what felt like the home straight with the conference and presentation itself left while I cracked on with more design for my next study.

The dates advertised on the conference site for final deadlines kept rolling, but I sat fine with it as I’d done final edits to my paper and the “camera ready” version was in. I presumed it was undersubscribed and they were trying to get some more interest and papers submitted in the closing months and weeks. In the week ahead of the conference I set aside some time and reread my paper, pulled together a presentation for the conference with a few presenter notes, and did a small run-through so I would be ready on the day.

It rolled around, I was excited, it wasn’t my first virtual conference in the pandemic, I had attended a couple already such as GISRUK, and it wasn’t my first time presenting online as I had done so for a few internal presentations with the Mixed Reality Lab, and the Horizon CDT retreat. Both of these fell at an earlier stage of this study so in a way I’d practiced talking about this topic and fielded some questions already on the study design, the potential research impacts, and how it all fitted into the larger picture of my PhD. I received the meeting link on the morning, exact proceedings hadn’t been released which was a bit odd, but presenters had been grouped and I knew I was in the first wave before break 1 on day 1. It was supposed to be a 2-day conference with 3 groupings of talks across each one, and links to e-posters sent round for looking at outside of this time. It became apparent quickly that the conference, a rather refined area of “Decision Theory and Decision Support Systems” was being run as part of a series of concurrent conferences by WASET, some entirely unrelated to decision making or support systems. This again seemed odd but not a pressing issue as I haven’t got that much experience with conferences particularly not smaller ones. I thought maybe this is how they can be run. The issue became apparent when the zoom call started and I could only see one other name on the participants list from those I expected to see in my block. The other names were from the concurrent conferences, they were in the same call and room as me. I checked my link and it appeared to be the correct one, I was unsettled but trying to focus on being ready to present. The session chair opened up and read a running order, I was up first.

After I finished presenting, and the floor was open for questions, it collapsed. People were asking not about my study but why they were hearing about capital project management groups and decision making, and not what they were there to present on. The chair was pushing to move on to the next presenter. A quick search online and I found the Wikipedia article on WASET mentioned earlier in this post and a few other blogs about peoples’ experiences with the conferences and attendees being frauds. I exited the call quickly.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, looking back at the process there were little indicators that something might not be quite what I’d hoped. Maybe I was distracted by a desire to get that first paper over the line and accepted, a badge on my sleeve and a boost of confidence for the next stage of my PhD. Maybe it should be chalked up to inexperience.

I wouldn’t wish for anyone else to go through this, particularly other early career researchers and PhD students. This still afforded me the opportunity to get on with writing up a study that could have sat in draft notes for months while I carried on with other research, the chance to go through the steps of writing up and submitting with my supervision team, albeit for a dud, receiving feedback and editing, and forming a presentation and presenting to an audience. It is a shame it had to happen this way and I am looking forward more now to writing up and submitting my next study. I hope my experience prevents someone else from falling foul of this sort of scam.

You can read our paper here: The Role of People and Data in Complex Spatial-Related Long-Term Decisions: A Case Study of Capital Project Management Groups.