Time to get off the treadmill

March 2, 2007

Each day brings another invitation to some pointless conference. Frank Furedi recommends giving them all the cold shoulder.

I can just about live with my daily round of commercial spam. Without a blink I know how to get rid of e-mail offering Viagra or another irresistible commercial opportunity. What I find more troublesome is the rising tide of academic spam. I now wince when I look at my e-mail and see "Call For Papers" in the subject line. Announcements of new journals and online publications are automatically deleted. But sometimes I get caught unawares by a cleverly crafted message that purports to be a private communication, only to realise that it has been transmitted to the whole world.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that there is now a veritable journal and conference industry that preys on academic insecurity.

Conference organisers have learnt a thing or two from old-fashioned vanity publishers. They promise a place for everyone and guarantee an automatic entry for your CV. Many conferences with fancy-sounding titles attempt to appeal to people's desire for recognition. And it costs only $420 to register!

Many of these events do not even require that you leave your office. For example, an e-mail informing me about a Symposium on the Arts in Society assures me that virtually every form of presentation is invited. It says that "presenters may choose to submit written papers for consideration in the International Journal of the Arts in Society ". If you can't attend, no big deal: "Virtual registrations are available that will allow you to submit a paper for review and possible publication in the journal."

It is worth noting that literally the same phrase appears in the call for papers for an International Conference on Learning in Johannesburg. The advert assures us that "virtual registrations are also available, which allow you to submit a paper for review and possible publication in the journal". And, surprise, surprise, a Conference on Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations in Amsterdam advertises pretty much the same thing. It appears that the same ghostwriter has been employed to flatter academic vanities throughout the world.

No doubt many of the unsolicited calls for papers are straightforward scams designed to rip off naive academics. But are they qualitatively different from the many pointless extracurricular activities that academics engage in for the sake of their CV? There are far too many academic conferences that simply go through the motions of providing an opportunity for the exchange of ideas.

I recently talked to a young scientist who paid out serious cash to be given an opportunity to make a poster presentation at an international conference. When I asked what this was, I was told that it was literally that - exhibiting a poster that outlined a few paragraphs about his research. It appears that there was some kudos attached to being mentioned in the conference programme.

Every profession is afflicted with meaningless ritual and forced to undertake meaningless activity. In recent years, higher education has become a hothouse for pointless initiatives. Reports about student progression, learning outcomes or skills acquisition bear no relationship to the real world. They are a pointless expenditure of energy that demonstrates compliance with the latest managerial fad.

Do we need poster presentations, virtual papers, phoney journals and conferences? Do we need to publish in outlets that virtually no one reads? Do we dare take a long sabbatical from the treadmill of our pointless extracurricular activities?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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