Not even a little bit qualified

I was as surprised as you are to find out that I am an expert on hematopoiesis and stem cells, but for the past several months I’ve been invited to several conferences asking me to speak on this topic, as well as other topics that I can’t even remember. All invitations came from BIT Life Sciences, who run a series of conferences in China on every imaginable topic in the life sciences.
Unlike most conferences, the conference organisers for BIT meetings are not themselves researchers in those particular fields. If they were, they would know that I never worked with stem cells. They would also not invite Derek Lowe (a chemist), or Michael Rosen (a children’s book author) to speak at events outside of their expertise. Jonathan Eisen has also written about getting these invitations to meetings outside of his field, and these are just the people who bothered to blog about it.
I’ve replied a few times, to say that I’m not the person they’re looking for. I think I even know where they got my address. It’s my work email address, which is listed on interviews I do with scientists who sometimes are world experts in fields like hematopoiesis. The interviews are indexed in PubMed and other databases.
Obviously BIT are scraping articles with certain keywords for email addresses. But that doesn’t explain how they found a children’s book author. In that case, I think they had a name, and tried to find a matching email address. It took me less a minute to find the academic email addresses for the two (!) Michael Rosens who actually are prominent biology professors, so that shows you how much effort and expertise went into that.
Tangentially related to this story, I did some Mechanical Turk tasks a while ago. I mostly did transcription tasks, because, even though the pay is just pennies, those assignments were often really interesting interviews or documentaries or lectures that taught me things about nuclear power in Canada and about urban planning in San Francisco as viewed by immigrant communities. On one occasion, though, I accepted a “find email addresses” task. It involved getting a list of names of scientists, and finding their email addresses. I did a Google search for all the names at once, to see what they had in common, and found that they had all been speakers at a a physics conference earlier that year. Conferences (legit, proper conferences) may pass on email addresses of registrants to sponsors of the meeting for a one-time mailing, but usually the email addresses are not public to people outside of the conference. This third party was now using Mechanical Turk to recruit people to find speaker contact info.
Nothing about the MTurk email address searching was illegal. You, too, are free to use Google to try to find someone’s email address. It was just a lot of manual work to search for each speaker individually to find their contact info, so they used distributed labour. What they then did with that info, I don’t know. For whatever reason, they wanted to email a bunch of physicists. Maybe they were selling some kind of thing of interest to physicists. (Blackboards, presumably, if my visit to the Perimeter Institute is any indication of what physicists like.) Maybe they were thinking of sending postdoc applications to every speaker at the meeting and couldn’t be bothered to look for the addresses themselves. Maybe, like BIT, they were also organising a conference.
But here’s the thing: Conference organisers that need to scrape papers en masse, or search online for email addresses, are not organising any kind of conference you want to attend. Proper conferences are organised by people in that field. People who would never email a children’s book author instead of a biology professor. Even if there is an event-organising specialist involved, who manages the practicalities and logistics of venue hire and meals, there are always scientists who select the speakers. And they know who they’re inviting.
The problem is not the annoying emails. You can ignore and delete those. The real issue is that some people do take up the invitation, only to find that the conference may not the kind of meeting they thought it would be. By then, they might have bought plane tickets or even paid registration fees.
One recipient of BIT’s unwanted emails has responded in a way that nicely exposes the lack of scientific rigour that goes into the selection of the talks. Using the name “Knut Buttnase”, one researcher accepted an invitation to speak at BIT’s Symposium for Bacteriology and Infection, using the “Center for Extraterrestial Sciences” as affiliation, and documenting the entire process on a blog.
“Buttnase” was then invited to chair a session, and to submit an abstract. The abstract they submitted is titled Effective Eradication of the Bit Bug by Massive Response with Mocked-Up Targets and it only gets better after that. I was relieved to see, when I looked up the original programme, that the co-chair spotted the ruse and seems to have withdrawn.
Despite Buttnase’s pioneering research in eradication of the “Bit Bug”, the bug is still rampant in inboxes of scientists, former scientists, and people who just happen to share the same name as a scientist. Rather than the suggested response with mocked-up targets, I propose mass immunisation: let as many people as possible know to ignore the emails. If nobody ever signs up, they will go away.

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