Little-known Polish company relied on suspect arbitration court to demand thousands of euros from conference speakers
Clinical laboratory and pathology professionals may want to heed the phrase “caveat emptor” (“let the buyer beware”) if invited to speak at events organized by little-known entities. That appears to be the lesson from a rather bizarre story coming out of Poland involving scholars from multiple countries who agreed to speak during a series of online COVID-19 webinars and who were later billed thousands of euros for their participation.
In “Costly Invite? Scientists Hit with Massive Bills after Speaking at COVID-19 ‘Webinars,’” Science magazine reported that in 2020 and 2021, dozens of researchers were invited by a Polish company called Villa Europa to speak in a series of online conferences about modeling of COVID-19.
But months after the event, the organizer demanded payment for the researchers’ participation, and in some cases, turned to a Polish arbitration court to enforce the demand. But in a curious twist, the legitimacy of that court has itself been called into question.
“I was interested in the topic, and I agreed to participate,” Björn Johansson, MD, told Science. “I thought it was going to be an ordinary academic seminar. It was an easy decision for me.” Johansson, a physician and researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, has since “come to regret that decision,” the publication reported.
Villa Europa is now seeking €80,000 ($86,912 in current US dollars) from Johansson, including legal costs and interest, after turning to a Swedish court. Others have received demands for €13,000 to €25,000 ($14,123 to $27,156) in fees, late payment penalties, and court costs, Science reported.
Researchers Axel Brandenburg, PhD (left), and Björn Johansson, MD (right), are two of the 32 scholars from six countries who are now being billed thousands of euros for their participation in the Villa Europa COVID-19 modeling webinars. Pathology and clinical laboratory leaders who receive similar invitations may want to thoroughly read the contracts before agreeing to participate. (Photo copyright: Axel Brandenburg, Björn Johansson.)
How Did It All Happen?
According to Science, the ordeal began when an individual named Matteo Ferensby invited the scientists to speak at the webinars. His email signature indicated an affiliation with the University of Warsaw, but the university “has no employee by that name, according to the institution’s press office,” Science reported, adding that “there is no track record of scientific publications from a Matteo Ferensby.”
By one speaker’s count, the company produced at least 11 webinars between April 2020 and June 2021. “The speakers themselves—about 10 people in each session—were the only audience, but participants were told the recordings would be published open access afterward,” Science reported.
Ferensby did not disclose that speakers would be charged conference fees. In fact, one speaker was told explicitly that no fees would be requested, Science noted.
However, the speakers were later asked to sign a license agreement that would allow the organizer to publish the recordings. It included a clause on the last page stating that they would have to pay fees of €790 and €2785 (US$859 and $3,029) related to publication.
The financial amounts were written in words rather than numbers with no highlighting, according to Science, which reviewed some of the contracts.
“Many of the speakers, already busy studying COVID-19 and under pressure from the transition to remote teaching, did not notice these clauses,” Science reported. Said one speaker: “The contract was unreadable [but] I eventually sent it.”
Some of the webinar participants told Science that they later received altered versions of the contracts with “an additional page where the fees are made explicit, and [with] modified clauses, one of them stating that disputes can be settled by a Polish arbitration court.”
That court, identified as Pan-Europejski-Sąd-Arbitrażowy (Pan European Arbitration Court or PESA), apparently does not exist. Agnieszka Durlik, JD, Director General of The Arbitration Court at the Polish Chamber of Commerce, told Science that she had never heard of PESA, and it that appears Villa Europa set up the PESA website.
“In my opinion this is fraud,” Durlik said. Nevertheless, Villa Europa used alleged rulings by PESA to go after some of the speakers in their own local courts.
“For the researchers now under pressure from the courts, ignoring the demands is not an option,” Science reported. “They have all submitted court filings supporting their case.”
The speakers claim that “the demands are illegitimate and that they were deceived about what they were signing in the contracts,” Science noted. One speaker, Axel Brandenburg, PhD, of the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA), is awaiting a ruling in September, Science reported.
Warnings against Predatory Conferences
The story comes amid increasing concerns about so-called “predatory conferences,” in which scientists are invited under false pretenses to participate in what appear to be legitimate meetings.
“Would-be attendees should expect missing plenary speakers, multiple fields of research smashed together in a Frankenstein program, and an absence of the important academic rigor that fuels the conferences that scientists know and love,” wrote senior science writer Ruairi J. Mackenzie in Technology Networks. “The companies organizing these events are motivated by profit above all else.”
Mackenzie offered several tips to help both speakers and attendees spot fake conferences:
- Examine the promotional materials. “Whether you are studying an unprompted email or a conference webpage, look for shoddy writing quality or outlandish layouts.”
- Check with your colleagues. “The dominant conferences in your field are probably in that position because they have proved time and time again that they can deliver a valuable experience for attendees.”
- Look at other conferences from the same producer. If a company produces a high volume of conferences on a wide range of topics, that can be a sign that the quality will be shoddy, he suggested.
- Look at the contact information. A legitimate conference should have ties to an established society or conference organizer. Get the address, and then look at that location in Google Street View to see if it’s the kind of building where you’d expect a legitimate company to be located.
The experience of these 32 scientific and medical scholars demonstrates that there is always a new twist in how honest citizens can be defrauded. For that reason, clinical laboratory managers and pathologists should be wary when approached by unknown organizations with speaking invitations, particularly in Europe.