Sometimes someone makes you an offer that seems too good to be true.
Now, just because you’re never heard of it doesn’t mean it’s bad. An early-career professional once turned down an invitation to chair a session at a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) because that person had never heard of it. Fortunately, a trusted colleague was able to explain what GRCs are and why the professional should quickly call back and accept the offer.
However, some offers that seem too good to be true are just that. For example, the main criterion for acceptance into a so-called predatory journal or conference is that you pay a fee. These journals do little or no peer review, publish almost anything, and are rarely cited. Instead, they prey on early-career researchers who need publications and presentations on their curricula vitae or résumés but may not be aware of all the reputable scientific journals. So how do you evaluate an offer to appear at a conference, publish in a journal, or serve on an editorial board?
Check the sender. Look at the specific journal or conference, but also investigate the organization behind it. How long has it been around? What other activities is it involved in? Who is the parent organization? Who is on the board? Does the name or the domain name seem suspiciously close to that of a highly prestigious entity? If it is trying to borrow another entity’s prestige, it probably doesn’t have much of its own. If the request came from an individual, you can check out LinkedIn to see to whom that person is connected.
Check the quality. Review the journal’s or conference’s website, especially past issues of a journal or abstract volumes from a conference. You can’t expect perfection, but the site should look professional, with proper grammar and spelling. The scientific content should be of high quality, adhering to all relevant regulatory requirements—for example, regarding the use of animals and human subjects. Think about how employers view job seekers with typos on their résumés, and apply that same standard to unknown entities.
Also look for independent, third-party evaluations and quantitative metrics, such as impact factor for journals.
If you received an invitation that had the title of one of your own presentations inserted, ask others in your circle if they received the same message. Often the subject matter of the conference will only be tangentially related to your work, but organizations hope to obscure that fact by including the title of something in which they know you are interested.
Check the reputation. One of the benefits of having a professional network is that you have people who can help you vet potential opportunities. Ask senior colleagues what they know about this entity. An organization that is reputable will not mind your questioning its credentials.
As a scientist, your job is to critically evaluate information and decide what is accurate and what is nonsense. Being aware that there are fraudsters and scammers out there helps, but you must remain vigilant and trust your gut. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers).