A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: December 2022

Predatory conferences

If you are an academic, you have probably noticed that you are getting more and more unexpected invitations via e-mail to participate as a speaker in what are presented as scientific conferences. The invitations can be confusing, as they are often not even in your subject area. But sometimes they get it right and maybe even mention your latest publication, which is praised in general terms. What is happening?

Publication ethics is one of many research areas at CRB. In recent years, we have researched (and blogged about) so-called predatory journals, which can lure academics to publish their studies in them for a considerable fee, which will make the article openly available to readers. Open access is an important trend in science, but here it is exploited for profit without regard for academic values. Predatory journals are often generously multidisciplinary and the promised “effective” peer review is just as generous, in order to capture as many paying authors as possible.

The steady stream of conference invitations to academics reflects the same dubious type of activity, but here the profit comes from conference fees and sometimes also from arranging accommodation. Within publication ethics, one therefore also speaks of predatory conferences. What do we know about these conferences? Is there any research on the phenomenon?

The first systematic scoping review of scholarly peer-reviewed literature on predatory conferences was recently published in BMJ Open. The overview was made by four researchers, Tove Godskesen and Stefan Eriksson at CRB, together with Marilyn H Oermann and Sebastian Gabrielsson.

The review showed that the literature on predatory conferences is small but growing, 20 publications could be included. Almost all of the literature in the review described characteristics that may define predatory conferences. The most cited characteristic was the spam email invitations, with flattering language that could contain grammatical errors and be non-scientific. Another distinguishing feature described was that the organization hosting the conference was unknown and used copied pictures without permission. Finally, high fees, lack of peer review, and multidisciplinary scope were also mentioned.

Why do researchers sometimes attend predatory conferences? Possible reasons cited in the literature were the focus on quantity in academic research dissemination, falling victim to misleading information, or the attractive and exotic locations where these conferences are sometimes held. The easy submission and review process and the opportunity to participate as a chair or invited speaker were also mentioned as possible attractions. Personal characteristics such as inexperience, naivety, ignorance, vanity and indifference were also mentioned.

Consequences of attending predatory conferences were described in only one of the publications, an interview study with conference participants. Their stories were marked by disappointments of various kinds. Small overcrowded conference rooms, poorly organized conference facilities, deviations from the conference program that could be reduced by a whole day, reputable keynote speakers announced in the program were absent, and the organizers were hard to reach as if the whole event was remote controlled. Participants were sometimes forced to book their accommodation through the organizers at double cost, and they could also experience that the organizers stole their identities by using their pictures and personal information as if they were part of the conference team. Many participants were so disappointed that they left the conferences early, feeling like they never wanted to attend any conferences again.

The literature also suggested various countermeasures. Among other things, education for all researchers and mentoring of junior academics, published lists of predatory conferences and their organizers, accreditation systems for conferences, and checklists to help identifying predatory conferences. It was also stated that universities and research funders should review their ways of assessing the qualifications of researchers seeking employment, promotion or funding. Attending predatory conferences should not be an asset.

For more details and discussion, read the systematic review here: Predatory conferences: a systematic scoping review.

Another countermeasure mentioned in the literature was more research on predatory conferences. This is also a conclusion of the overview: both empirical and analytical research should be encouraged by funders, journals and research institutions.

Hopefully, these staged conference rooms will soon be empty.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Godskesen T, Eriksson S, Oermann MH, et al. Predatory conferences: a systematic scoping review. BMJ Open 2022;12:e062425. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2022-062425

This post in Swedish

We want solid foundations

Does public health need virtue ethics?

So-called virtue ethics may seem too inward-looking to be of any practical use in a complex world. It focuses on good character traits of a morally virtuous person, such as courage, sincerity, compassion, humility and responsibility. It emphasizes how we should be rather than how we should act. How can we find effective guidance in such “heroic” ethics when we seek the morally correct action in ethically difficult situations, or the correct regulation of various parts of the public sector? How can such ancient ethics provide binding reasons for what is morally correct? Humbly referring to one’s superior character traits is hardly the form of a binding argument, is it?

It is tempting to make fun of the apparently ineffective virtue ethics. But it has, in my view, two traits of greatest importance. The first is that it trusts the human being: in actual situations we can see what must be done, and what must be carefully considered. The second is that virtue ethics thus also supports our freedom. A virtuous person does not need to cling to standards of good behavior to avoid bad behavior, but will spontaneously behave well: with responsibility, humility, compassion, etc. So a counter-question could be: What good will it be for someone to gain a whole world of moral correctness, yet forfeit themselves and their own freedom? – This was a personal introduction to today’s post.

In an article in Public Health Ethics, Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist discusses public health as a domain of work where moral virtues may need to be developed and supported in the professionals. Unlike medical care, public health focuses on good and equal health in entire risk groups and populations. Due to this more universal perspective of collective health, there can be a risk that the interests, rights and values ​​of individuals are sometimes overlooked. The work therefore needs to balance the general public health objectives against the values ​​of individuals. This may require a well-developed sensitivity, which can be understood in terms of virtue ethics.

Furthermore, public health is often characterized by a greater distance between professionals and the public than in medical care, where the one-on-one meeting with the patient supports a caring attitude in the clinician towards the individual. Imagination and empathy may therefore be needed in public health to assess the needs of individuals and the effects of the work on individuals. Finally, there is power asymmetry between public health professionals and the people affected by the public health work. This requires responsibility on the part of those who use the resources and knowledge that public health authorities possess. This can also be understood in terms of virtue ethics.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist emphasizes three virtues that she argues are needed in public health: responsibility, compassion and humility. She concretises the virtues through three ideals to personally strive for in public health. The ideals are described in short italicized paragraphs, which provide three understandable profiles of how a responsible, compassionate and humble person should be in their work with public health – three clear role models.

The ethical problems are made concrete through two examples, breastfeeding and vaccination, which illustrate challenges and opportunities for virtue ethics in public health work. Read the article here: Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist does not rule out the importance of other moral philosophical perspectives in public health. But the three virtue ethical ideals (and probably also other similar ideals) should complement the prevailing perspectives, she argues. Everything has its place, but finding the right place may require good character traits!

If you would also like to read a more recent and shorter discussion by Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist on these important issues, you will find a reference below.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, Public Health and the Virtues of Responsibility, Compassion and Humility, Public Health Ethics, Volume 12, Issue 3, November 2019, Pages 213–224, https://doi.org/10.1093/phe/phz007

Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist, Individual Virtues and Structures of Virtue in Public Health, Public Health Ethics, Volume 15, Issue 1, April 2022, Pages 11–15, https://doi.org/10.1093/phe/phac004

This post in Swedish

We like challenging questions