Chapter 1: The Phone Call
On a sunny afternoon in June, I was contacted by a woman, located in London, who represented an organization dedicated to educating and promoting the work of nurses, doctors, researchers and other medical professionals by holding conferences all over the world, including Vienna, Austria. I was contacted, I was told, because of my connection to U!Shine Vienna. This woman, in her preparation for an upcoming nursing conference, found our organization and thought our purpose was worthy of being heard by new and experienced nurses. “The nurses need to be made more aware of their own mental health,” she said. “We really want you to come and be a keynote speaker as well as part of our Organizational Committee. It’s for the nurses.”
Things got weird when she asked me to pay a discounted price of €500 per U!Shine Vienna participant.
“That’s the discounted price?” I choked out over the phone. “ I’m sorry but we’ll have to decline the invitation. We’re a small and new non-profit. We’d love to come, but we cannot afford that.”
Chapter 2: Attack of the London Lady
London Lady balked at my invitation withdrawal. She said with great determination that she would speak with her supervisor about our “situation” and get back to me because U!Shine Vienna has to be there. It’s important.
Not too much later, she called me to say her supervisor agreed to waive all fees if U!Shine would accept the invitation. I should note here that, on this day, I was busy and not near my phone, so when I finally did get to it, I had four or five missed calls plus multiple Facebook messages from London Lady asking, informing, then kind of demanding that I call her back. I felt weird about her, but I thought maybe we weren’t in sync because of culture or personality. The fees had been waived, after all, and it seemed like a good way to put U!Shine on the map in front of a large, international group. After talking with my co-founder, we decided to accept the invitation and attend the conference.
In the weeks that followed, London Lady was a constant presence in my inbox and Facebook Messenger. She seemed to always need something from me, but this being my first go round as a keynote, I perceived this to be normal. So when I was asked to submit an abstract for my presentation and it was immediately accepted before I even wrote it, I thought they were trusting my, you know, ability to write and present well or something.
Chapter 3: The Human Cartoon Character
The day of the conference arrived, and I was ready. As someone who enjoys giving presentations, I had thoroughly prepared and practiced everything from my PowerPoint down to my outfit. I was told to expect at least forty to fifty nurses from all over the world. I was told to be on time. I was told to bring my official acceptance letter for both my attendance and abstract as proof I’d been invited among this prestigious group of professionals. I was told the conference itself had nearly sold out. I followed London Lady’s instructions and arrived, with a friend of mine who came as an accompanying “delegate”, on time with invites in hand.
The woman who greeted us was not London Lady. Though she was definitely a real person, she acted as though she’d dropped out of an episode of Sylvester and Tweety Bird. I half expected her to exclaim, “You bad, bad pussycat!” as she scuttled around the reception table in a cloud of her own dust. She was nervous, unprepared, jumpy. She hurriedly bequeathed our necks with name tags and handed us empty (yes, empty) gift bags on behalf of the organization.
For a moment, we wondered if the greeter needed a brown paper bag to breathe into. Her words tumbled out of her mouth before her brain or mouth fully formed them as she speedily rounded corners toward the seminar hall. We raced to catch up from behind until we arrived at a closed, windowless door. The lady paused long enough to catch her breath and place both hands around the door handles. She bowed her head.
… What’s happening.
She spun around to face us and threw her arms out like she was ready for takeoff. “Ladies!” she gasped. “It’s time! Deep breaths!” And with that, she opened the doors with an over-exaggerated tug to welcome us at last to the great conference.
Her reveal was severely underwhelming.
Chapter 4: The Worst Big Reveal
Instead of a lecture hall, it was a small room with about twenty chairs on either side. The number of people present was thirteen, including my friend and myself, the Human Cartoon Character we’d just encountered, and another woman who was also not London Lady but some other organizer of the event, Monotone Ma’am. As my friend and I stared in disbelief at the sparse sight before us, sure we’ve walked in on a staff meeting, Monotone Ma’am read the “Opening Ceremony” remarks, word for word, from a clipboard in front of her nose. She then introduced each of the keynote speakers who made up over half of those present. The other half of the thirteen were the “delegates”, the plus ones of the speakers.
There were no nurses.
No London Lady.
Tunnel vision set in as, with the help of speedy research conducted by my husband shared via text, I realized I’d been tricked into attending what’s called a “predatory conference.”
Chapter 5: The Predatory Conference, Defined
A predatory conference is an elaborate scheme put into place to lure professionals in their respective fields into sharing their work with a nonexistent or hurriedly formed audience.
Like predatory journals, the conference organizers lead you to believe that your work is invaluable and desperately needed. They will go as far as to create legitimate – though poorly executed – websites, registrations, and photos of their phantom participants with the goal of profiting from the fees paid by the speakers.
Predatory conferences prey on those who may be fairly new to the professional scene, eager to speak about their research, methods, and organizations, and depend on such conferences to get their work out in the open. The conference organizers then collect the fees owed to them through the registration process, invest a small amount of money for appearances (seminar rooms, schedule, name tags), and move on to the next pretend-conference. While this has been more commonly found among predatory journals, predatory conferences are rapidly increasing in number.
Chapter 6: Your Name is Not Lunch
Since I refused to pay money from the get-go, the only thing I lost was my time and a bit of pride. The others, however, had flown in from Canada, the USA, Argentina, Switzerland, Vietnam — and did pay for not only their flight to and from Vienna, but their hotel stay and conference participation as well. Let that sink in.
One by one, scientists, doctors, and professors presented their research to one another, each as equally disappointed and wildly confused as the next.
We worked our way through three dejected speakers before the Human Cartoon Character proclaimed she wanted pictures. She rushed all the women in the room to the chairs she’d set out for the group. She shooed the men behind us. After we were settled, she proceeded to commit borderline harassment – fixed the men’s hands, shimmied the skirt of a woman’s outfit so it wouldn’t appear too short, tugged at the pant leg of Monotone Ma’am, and as a final fix, she touched and fluffed and pulled on both sides of my hair. For a long time. Long enough, in fact, to procure an uncomfortable “Uhmmm…” from the surgeon behind me. She took a step back and scanned our name cards.
“AH! Turn your tags to see your names, please. You are not ‘lunch’. YOUR NAME IS NOT LUNCH!’”
Chapter 7: More Plywood, Please
During the following coffee break, I approached a doctor who appeared to be equally disgruntled as I was to ask if he had been expecting this kind of turn out. His story was similar to mine — London Lady contacted him and his hospital. His hospital paid the €500 to send him to the conference. She contacted him nearly every day, asking for this and that, including help with visas for other attendees. He was told to expect over one hundred people in attendance to hear his research on emergency airway opening techniques. He was also told he would lead two sessions over the course of two days. Then, three days prior to the conference, suddenly the second day was off the table due to “flights and other reasons”, so he would have to do both of his sessions on the same day. In response, he asked for his money back that his hospital paid for the second day. “I’ll ask my supervisor,” answered London Lady.
He won’t see that money again.
Nauseated by the whole thing, I debated leaving. The last thing I wanted to do was take a bunch of angry researchers and scientists through a mindful sensory exercise, which ironically, they probably needed. But my husband and delegate told me to stick it out through my presentation just in case it mattered to someone. So, that’s what I did.
Then came my award.
If you’re wondering what kind of award a keynote speaker receives at a fake conference, you’ll be delighted to know it’s a sticker pasted onto the front of plywood. Mine reads:
(Fake Organization) wish to thank Prof/Dr. Holly Kooi UShine Vienna, Austria for her phenomenal and worthy keynote presentation in Vienna, Austria
Signed by: Person 1 and 2, and Committee Members 1, 2, 3
Ok so there’s a bit to dissect here.
First, let’s comprehend for a moment that someone, somewhere, has to put stickers on plywood so a few people can receive a fake award. That has to be painfully irritating work.
Second, I specifically enjoy how they try to cover their bases here by assuming the award winner is either a professor OR a doctor. Since both are listed, I would like to now go through life being referred to as ‘Professor Doctor Holly Kooi.’ Please and thank you.
And third, to preserve identities, I haven’t included the actual names of the people on my piece of plywood, but it’s icing on the cake to know the signatures and listings are the names of the others who presented which means my signature is on someone else’s fake award, a nice touch of researcher roulette. I wonder who wound up with my signature?
Chapter 8: With a Cherry on Top
My friend and I knew it was time to go when a kind gentleman ER doctor showed a video on emergency airway blockage. It was graphic. Lots of talk about swollen tracheas and popping noises and slicing, all discussed very seriously to the poorly timed tune of JUMP, complements of the hotel’s background music. Since my friend and I were the only people in the room who were not part of the medical field, we were the only ones grimacing and gagging. Unable to handle further shots of scapulas and pierced membranes, we made a break for the exit but were intercepted by the Human Cartoon Character once more. For a moment, we were afraid she wasn’t going to let us leave, but to our surprise, she looked like she fully expected our early departure, though not without a picture taken by the “professional” photographer, who, upon hearing her repeatedly talk about his professional abilities, leaned down to my ear and stated:
“Yeah, I’m not actually a professional photographer.”
Ah, the truth. So refreshing.
We posed for the fake photographer and hightailed it out of the hotel to stuff ourselves with comfort pizza.
Chapter 9: Let’s Review
So, dear reader, I hope my small blog book has alerted you to the dangers of predatory conferences and human cartoon characters. Remember the following red flags should you be contacted by someone who wants you to be a keynote speaker at their next conference:
Unexpected messages across your social platforms (email, IG, FB, LinkedIn)
Repetitive requests to discuss the conference
An almost immediate acceptance into the conference by an unclear committee
Regular usage of the term ‘peer reviewed’
Follow-up emails from predatory journals
A variety of unrelated topics thrown together for one audience
Irregular or hurried changes made to the schedule
I’d like to thank London Lady for introducing me to the existence of predatory conferences and clinical journals. L-squared, girl, I couldn’t have written this fake book without you. I’d be remiss to not thank Monotone Ma’am for trying her best to feign interest in everyone’s topics. I am also grateful to the photographer who was not a photographer for telling the truth. I am forever indebted to my sister-friend and ‘delegate’ who attended this life changing forum with me and made me laugh when I wanted to angrily throw things at the wall. And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank the Human Cartoon Character for successfully freaking out twelve strangers with her unwelcome touches and anxiety-inducing presence. Had you not yelled at us all about our name tags, I would never have known what to refer to myself as now that I am a fake medical professional. Truly, I thank you.
Professor Doctor Lunch