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Buyer beware: calling time on fake meetings

Swallowing fake news can be an ego-bruising experience, especially if you’ve shared it on social media. Especially if you’ve expressed credulous outrage at its contents. And especially if you’ve introduced the fake news to your friends with the words: THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!!! In the fevered political climate of the hour, gullibility has become an unpardonable sin. So imagine how you’d feel if you turned up to a fake meeting? At this point, humiliation, surely, turns to despair. Would there be any coming back? Would one’s self esteem recover?

Fake meetings are real. That is to say, a real problem. Legion are the number of people who have been duped into attending conferences in side-street hotels to find themselves listening to PowerPoint presentations of extremely dubious quality. When, one wonders, does the penny drop? At what point does the dodgy science (and the stale sandwich) begin to leave a suspicious taste in the mouth?

The people behind these scams are praying on naive, often young, academics who are desperate to get their work in print or accepted for a scientific conference. Their aim is to make a quick and easy profit with the minimum amount of input. Fake meetings are sometimes ‘organised’ – for want of a better word – by fake or ‘predatory’ publishers.  Which begs the question: how fake is fake?

Often these meetings are operating in a grey legal area, skating a fine line between illegal and unethical. There is an element of buyer beware in all of this. If a meeting has taken place at the advertised time and place, then the organisers can’t be accused of misrepresentation in that regard.

However the quality of the meeting and the content that is eventually delivered could leave organisers open to accusations of false advertising, likewise claiming endorsement where it doesn’t exist, or advertising speakers who have no intention of speaking could be grounds for prosecution.

Often the scammers don’t bother going that far: preferring to shortcut the process by concentrating solely on the registration process, creating websites that look enough like the genuine article to snare unsuspecting delegates. Again, by acting as a booking agent, they might not be doing anything technically wrong. But try telling that to members who have paid significantly more than their peers.

Noor Ahmad Hamid, regional director Asia Pacific of ICCA, who spoke at the recent Union of International Associations (UIA) Associations Round Table Asia-Pacific 2018 in Kuala Lumpur, said the industry should be on its guard. He said there was no authoritative body to monitor predatory conferences and therefore scant information was available to measure the scale of the problem.

Perhaps, then, it’s time an ‘authoritative body’ stepped up to the plate to monitor predatory conferences. ICCA would seem an obvious choice. Or the UIA perhaps. Individual countries may want to tweak the regulatory framework around meetings, especially maiden ventures, to deter scammers. Venues could be encouraged to gather more information about organisers and be vigilant if their venues have been announced before a request for proposal. But what’s really needed is an independent body to act as designated vigilante, to ensure the meetings industry as a whole isn’t dragged into the gutter with the scammers.