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Sometimes, that small print does matter

There is predatory, and then there is predatory:

When Björn Johansson received an email in July 2020 inviting him to speak at an online debate on COVID-19 modeling, he didn’t think twice. “I was interested in the topic and I agreed to participate,” says Johansson, a medical doctor and researcher at the Karolinska Institute. “I thought it was going to be an ordinary academic seminar. It was an easy decision for me.”

All the scientists interviewed by Science say Ferensby’s initial messages never mentioned conference fees. When one speaker, Francesco Piazza, a physicist now at the University of Florence, directly asked Ferensby whether the organizers would request a fee, Ferensby replied, “No, we are talking about science and COVID-19.”

But after the events, the speakers were approached by a conference secretary, who asked them to sign and return a license agreement that would give Villa Europa—named in the document as the conference organizer—permission to publish the webinar recordings. Most of the contracts Science has seen state that the researcher must pay the company €790 “for webinar debate fees and open access publication required for the debate proceedings” plus €2785 “to cover editorial work.” These fees are mentioned in a long clause in the last page of the contract, and are written out in words rather than numbers, without any highlighting.

What an absolute nightmare. Predatory journals at least have the decency to ask you for them money up front.

And let’s take a moment to contemplate the ridiculousness of the current academic publishing and conference model. Note that there is nothing unusual in academic conferences requiring attendance fees from speakers. If you have an scientific abstract accepted for oral or poster presentation at ASCO, let’s say, you will still have to pony up for the registration fee. And publication fees for a legitimate open access journal can be north of $3,000. So how is a judge to know whether the organizer’s claims are legitimate?

The difference, of course, is that the good ones — both journals and conferences — don’t solicit submissions; you have to beg them to take your money. Which only makes the situation more ridiculous, not less.

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