119

Recently, I applied to attend a workshop of 14 days. I came to know about this workshop from colleague of mine. After a few days, I received an email saying I got accepted, along with that, some procedures that I need to follow. Among the points, one was

Once you join the course, you will also have to sign (i) an agreement that you will be present in each and every event (talk, discussion, practicals, field trip etc.) and (ii) maintaining good conduct and behavior throughout the course with fellow participants/ organizing personnel/ hotel staffs/ speakers etc. Any violation of agreement or any kind of misconduct reported to the organizer will attract strict academic as well as legal action.

The agreement signature issue was not mentioned when I applied for the event. I mailed as there was a line saying "violation of the agreement would lead to strict legal and academic action". Seeing this point, I was a bit concerned, as this point talked about legal action. I have never been to any workshop, or nor have I known anyone speak of any workshop where one has to sign an agreement that he/she has to attend every lecture. I recently communicated a paper, and I feel I may get a review at that time. And right now I cannot afford to anger the reviewer. Hence I wrote an email saying:

Respected Sir,

Thank you for considering me eligible for participating in the lecture course. I had a query regarding the fourth point which says: "Once you join the course, you will also have to sign (i) an agreement that you will be present in each and every event (talk, discussion, practicals, field trip etc.) and (ii) maintaining good conduct and behaviour throughout the course with fellow participants/ organising personnel/ hotel staffs/ speakers etc. Any violation of agreement or any kind of misconduct reported to the organiser will attract strict academic as well as legal action."

According to (i), there will be an agreement that I have to be present in each and every event (talk, discussion, practicals, field trip etc.). Will there be some consideration in the exceptional cases of physical sickness or if during that time I am asked to review an already submitted work of mine in some journal (since the review period will be time bound, in such a case I may not be able to compulsorily attend each and every event, I may have to work for the review during that time). Since signing an agreement is a serious business and violation of the agreement would lead to strict academic as well as legal action, hence I had to query about this issue.
Regard,

To this, I got the reply:

Dear ****

Thanks for your query. This course, unlike others is a prestigious and highly demanding one. This is aimed to make every participant as beneficial as possible. This is the reason, why *** is spending this huge amount. This can only happen if the beneficiary participants like you will be alert, responsive and receptive. You should rather be happy and positive to get an opportunity like this, instead of thinking negatively in anticipation of being sick or reviewing papers with a challenging attitude.

I would suggest you to rather take care of your review of manuscript than attending this course. There are many deserving candidates out there who are willing to leave everything behind and simply be attentive to listen and grasp knowledge from world leaders. Think twice, if you are the one who is fit for such course or not. If not, simply withdraw your candidature and we will be very happy to send your participation fee back.

Your candidature will be withdrawn if I fail to hear from you within the next 24 hours on the acceptance of the terms and conditions.

I felt that the reply was a bit rude. Was this reply appropriate? Is there something wrong with my e-mail? I may be wrong, do let me know if you feel the same. I personally felt that the person could have just said that they will be sticking to the rules, instead of going into so much of details. Do correct me if I am wrong...

P.S. I am just a student. I have been in research field for not more than 1.5 years, so I still may not be knowing the drills. My advisor thinks i am wrong in asking this. The *** stars are just used to replace the event name and the organizer name. My main email contains the real names...

  • 114
    The reply you got sounds rather rude to me, too. This impression might be a little bit worsened by the way you anonymized the message, as with the general harsh tone of the reply, I cannot help but imagine **** hides swearwords rather than just anonymizes ;) But, seriously, "I would suggest you to rather take care of your review of manuscript than attending this course. There are many deserving candidates" is really rude in my opinion. If not active and reliable participation in research, what else makes candidates "deserving"? – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 8:53
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    "There are many deserving candidates out there who are willing to leave everything behind and simply be attentive to listen and grasp knowledge from world leaders." ROTFL who the hell do they think they are? The reply you got is not "a bit rude", it is extremely rude. Such an attitude wouldn't even deserve your respect. You are being way too polite and your concerns are absolutely justified. – Andrea Lazzarotto Nov 11 '16 at 14:27
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    I'd suggest you have a look at Beall's List of predatory journals/editors. Sometimes these organize workshops and conferences that claim are very good (with big names on it) and they are actually a scam. Have a look at who is organizing this and make sure its not in Beall's list. Sure that is not perfect, but it is a decent filter. – Ander Biguri Nov 11 '16 at 15:45
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    I'll go a bit further than Andre and say not only a scam, but a brainwashing session. Sounds to me like this person (whose English is clearly not native) only wants people who will obediently absorb the propaganda and not say anything that might make other victims think. I hope I'm wrong, but that's what it sounds like. – WGroleau Nov 11 '16 at 16:17
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    Forget the rudeness, their reply was also very poorly written. If the organizers of this workshop can't come up with less awkward phrasing than "I would suggest you to rather take care" and don't understand how to correctly use commas then it's unlikely that they're going to be teaching you anything useful. I agree with others that this is likely a scam. A legitimate PhD-level workshop would have put together a much more professional-sounding reply. And wouldn't have threatened attendees with vague "academic and legal action" in the first place. – aroth Nov 15 '16 at 22:56

10 Answers 10

136

Should you be worried about "legal actions"?

Maybe. I deem unlikely that any jurisdiction has specific laws for you not attending a workshop (of course I am not a lawyer and you never know, maybe North Korea's..). Any legal consequence must come from the agreement they make you sign, and you are at the very least entitled to see it before reaching the venue and be put in a position where you are pressured into signing it.

In my humble opinion, I don't think there is any actual legal consequence awaiting you and this is most likely an empty threat.

Should you be worried about "academic actions"

The only thing I can think of is being somehow shun by that specific workshop community and maybe be blacklisted for future workshop from the same organizer. Is this a relevant thing to you? Maybe, if you are "caught" missing any of the talks, you might receive a reprimand.

Other considerations

Without further information I cannot say whether this is a good workshop or a bad one, but there are some obvious red flags.

The language they use in their reply to you sounds unprofessional to say the least. I personally find it quite offensive.

Furthermore, everything they write sounds extremely pretentious. Sentences like:

This course, unlike others is a prestigious and highly demanding one.

and

This is the reason, why *** is spending this huge amount.

and

There are many deserving candidates out there who are willing to leave everything behind and simply be attentive to listen and grasp knowledge from world leaders.

make it sounds like they are desperately trying to convey the high quality of their workshop to you.

This is somewhat inconsistent with what they are trying to project, though. If their course had really such good speakers, whose lessons are so invaluable, why do they have to put an unheard-of clause about attendance, threatening attendees with potential "academic and legal action"?

Why, instead of politely replying to your legitimate query, do they write such a passive-aggressive letter, suggesting that you pass on this because maybe you are not the candidate they are looking for? Do you see that this, too, is a device to have you attend?

If I had to guess, I would think that in the past people got so sick with wasting their time there with pompous self-proclaimed world leader that many left the venue. I am not saying that this has happened, I am most likely wrong, this is indeed a great workshop with a stricter than usual rule and the occasional rude guy answering email, but I would take time to reconsider whether this workshop is indeed worth attending for two weeks. Maybe your time and money are indeed better spent elsewhere.

Were you wrong in asking ?

I think you had a right to ask, but perhaps your email was a little misguided. Rather than providing possible motivations you could have simply asked explanations on what the clause meant and to see the agreement.

If you want to go forward I'd ignore their considerations, as there is little point in arguing with jerks, and just stick with a polite email along the lines of

Dear Sir, I am planning to attend the workshop fully, but I'd like to understand the legal consequences of any agreement I enter into. I kindly request that you send me a copy of the agreement I will be required to sign beforehand and extend the deadline to allow me to read it before giving you a definitive answer.

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    It is perfectly fine to expect something from your guests and also to let them know. Threatening possible legal action for mysterious agreements and answering emails from rightly concernef attendees with weird passive-aggressive emails is unprofessional and a red flag in my book. – Three Diag Nov 11 '16 at 14:00
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    Honestly speaking, I did not miss any sessions of any the workshops that I have attended till date, even though I never had to sign any such agreement. This was a special case. I had a simple query. Just because I had a query does not mean that I will miss the lectures. Since it is a long workshop, hence just wanted to clarify doubts... – girl101 Nov 11 '16 at 14:17
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    Rishika your position is perfectly fine and sensible to me. – Three Diag Nov 11 '16 at 14:35
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    @Jan-ChristophSchlage-Puchta. "At the highly prestigous Oberwolfach conferences you are expected to stay for the whole week" - this is not a question of whether or not to stay the whole week, but whether or not to temporarily leave the room or at most skip a few of the sessions. Not for relaxing, mind you, but because other professional activities demand some attention, as well. – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 16:10
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    @jpmc26 Or non-career related. What would they have said if the OP had asked if participants would be excused in case their children were taken critically ill or their parent died? What about participants with disabilities which might potentially require missing an hour? If it is that good, participants will be glued to their seats without any agreement, unless they face genuine emergencies. – cfr Nov 12 '16 at 4:05
185

Plain and clear: Turn around and run.

We know, of course, nothing about your actual event, but that kind of language and mindset is absolutely impossible. Unless you are trying to get into such prestigious circles, of course (what do I know, it might be an Oxford or MIT event for the "best of the best of the best" students in the world...), but you would likely have mentioned that.

This sounds more like a brainwashing event than an earnest academic workshop. As you rightly took good note of the terms in their first mail, you will very likely have either nagging doubts/fears during the event, or, will find that the athmosphere is one of much tension (which is hardly good for learning).

Even though you are "only" a student, you are still an adult human, and a teaching organisation has no business talking like this. They are a service provider and you are the customer. They are nothing without you. You are not a serf labouring to meet a person higher up in the food chain, it should be the other way round.

Even if there were some way to justify the legally binding agreement for attendance and behaviour, a professional would answer your question in a neutral/friendly way, explaining why they need the agreement. They are asking you to sign something (onesided, as well), with a clear threat attached. They do not see fit to explain why and how it exactly it works. This is clear fear-based intimidation, or at least, by their communication, it looks that way.

So either they have bad intentions, or they are just not good at communicating. In both cases, this is in conflict with them trying to teach you something!

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    This might be malice or incompetence. In any case it signals something is wrong. – Three Diag Nov 11 '16 at 16:06
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    Sorry, having been at really high-quality/high-level events, I have never ever seen anything remotely like that. They may ask to stay for the whole period because the event is expensive and they want make sure the money is invested into someone who is prepared to match their investment, but this will always be politely expressed. I find it difficult to believe that these are really high-profile people. If they are, then their working style must be very unpleasant to be exposed to. – Captain Emacs Nov 11 '16 at 20:06
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    "Turn and run" is too soft a statement. I couldn't agree more. That was my immediate thought on reading this gem: "...any kind of misconduct reported to the organizer will attract...legal action." Not "proven to the organizer." Can they follow through on this threat? No. Should you attend their course "aimed to make every participant as beneficial as possible"? Absolutely not. Run away, now. – Wildcard Nov 12 '16 at 11:07
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    Possibly a scam, but I've seen this at legit events too. I refuse to attend any with those requirements. It's very dangerous to put yourself under such obligations especially since you have little control over what other people might choose to report (as well as unexpected events that could cause your absence from sessions). – Brian Knoblauch Nov 15 '16 at 16:04
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    @ThreeDiag "Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice." – I don't know who actually said this first, but I said it before hearing it from anyone else. – ErikE Nov 19 '16 at 0:15
128

SCAM!

They avoid answering a valid legal question, and instead of answering it they try to make you feel bad for asking and try to pressure you into ignoring the legal issue. If you run a scam, that's how to do it.

Bonus points for putting on extra pressure with a random 24h time limit.

There is a negligible chance that they are merely running their event like a scam by accident. But even in that case you shouldn't sign anything these people ask you to sign.

  • 44
    Absolutely a scam, completely agree. And good on pointing out that they didn't actually answer the question. At this point I'd even be giving the colleague a fishy eye for being involved with/recommending this "conference" with such bizarre tactics. It would surprise me very much if anyone attending this conference got any benefit at all, let alone their money's worth. And it wouldn't surprise me greatly if something very illegal is going on; the red flags are all over it. – Wildcard Nov 12 '16 at 11:16
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    It does sound a lot like a conversation I had with a Nigerian scammer who threatened me with the police for failing to provide a bank account number. I wonder why OP's advisor didn't see the red flags on this. – user21264 Nov 18 '16 at 16:26
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I'm not at your career stage, but I would be incensed if I got such a response. Granted, as already pointed out, your letter was sort of naive, but his level of rudeness was uncalled for.

Unless this is the career opportunity of a lifetime, I would publicly withdraw. I wouldn't send the letter to him. I would withdraw by forwarding his email message to the leadership of whatever organizations run and fund this event, politely explaining that you found the reply offensive and suggesting that they find somebody with the appropriate level of civility to interact with trainees in your field.

Of course, this might be horrible career advice.

His appropriate response, by the way, would have been "Unfortunately, past experience dictates that we remind our attendees of matters of basic etiquette. We understand how this raises concerns. Attached are the agreements that we require of you for your review." Same message, without being an asshole.

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    While this course of action suggested by Scott sounds just and heroic, I recommend against it. Academia is a small community, and people would remember the grad student who publicly embarrassed the conference organizer (who is presumably a big name in the field, given that he is organizing a prestigious conference). I would recommend either apologizing and clarifying misunderstandng, then attending the conference, or politely withdrawing. No need to blow things up even further. – Sana Nov 11 '16 at 15:29
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    @Sana There is ZERO for the student to apologize for, and I don't see any misunderstandings. I also question how prestigious the conference is, as prestigious conferences don't need to point out how prestigious they are. – Scott Seidman Nov 11 '16 at 15:42
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    @Sana -- If I were running a society, and had this guy communicating inappropriately with students on my organization's behalf, I'd want to know about it. – Scott Seidman Nov 11 '16 at 15:50
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    I've got to wonder if there is a huge cultural difference here, because at least in the US the letter and the stated advice from the supervisor to be submissive is beyond any norm I've ever been a part of. It's the sort of behavior that, in a culture of honor, would get you a duel - or at least told to shove it. But then, it sounds like we are both from cultures that strongly value dominance, assertiveness, directness, and emphasize the rights and respect of the individual (attendee, consumer, etc). Not all cultures share these traits, so OP's mileage may vary. – BrianH Nov 11 '16 at 22:04
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    @BrianDHall: I can confidently vouch that in most of Europe, the organisers’ response is also well outside academic norms. – PLL Nov 13 '16 at 15:30
23

The initial agreement is perhaps a bit heavy handed but not too strange and comes across a covering themselves against people who see the workshops as an opportunity to spend a few days in a hotel getting drunk.

Threatening legal action for bad behaviors is understandable but it is odd that they would feel the need to make this point if it really is a respected academic course with stringent entry requirements. Legal action for non attendance is just odd, as long as you have paid it's no skin off their nose whether you actually turn up or not...unless the real point of the 'workshop' is to sell you something.

However the reply to your reasonable query is worrying and has a lot of the hallmarks of very dubious hard sell tactics. It is entirely reasonable for them to say that they require full attendance and a minimum standard of behavior but equally it is entirely reasonable for you to query what would happen if you are ill or have to fulfil other commitments ans as such this reply does seem overly aggressive.

For example you might expect a more professional reply to be worded like :

'This is a demanding course and we do expect all participants to attend all scheduled events in order to get the full benefit and missing some parts by individuals cannot be made up later. If you have other commitments you may wish to reconsider your booking.' Terse but polite the message being take it or leave it which is fair enough.

Equally some of the language is a bit awkward and weird This course, unlike others is a prestigious and highly demanding one and You should rather be happy and positive to get an opportunity like this really do ring alarm bells indeed the phrase 'world leaders' is a very strange one to use in this context.

Overall this sounds a lot like the language of a scam and I would recommend staying well away.

A genuinely world class course would not remotely need to use this sort of manipulative and coercive tone.

9

TLDR;

Instead of essentially saying, "This is the reason, why Mr. Jones is spending so g*dd*** much," I'd expect a seasoned organizer to say something more along the lines of, "Mr. Jones is making an investment in your career by having you join our seminar."


As an aside from the behavior release, his reply scares me.

The wording, "this huge amount," is a red-flag to me. I see that he's trying to convey there is great quality in the programming, but "huge amount," just sounds off and is not wording that would be typical from a highly seasoned event organizer.

I'd expect the organizer would be better versed in describing the high pricing as a pro versus a con as he did in the email.

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    "this huge amount" sounds like the kind of money that I will receive from Prince Mugwamba Mugabe if I give him access to my bank account. – Wayne Werner Nov 15 '16 at 19:40
7

I have never seen such a clause in any conference, and the answering letter is quite rude. However, the reasoning behind it is sound, and even applied internally sometimes. If there is a prestigious conference with limited capacity, and people know that you tend to show up for only a fraction of the time, chances are that you are not invited.

I believe that asking about situations which force you to skip parts of the workshop was a mistake. Suppose you reserve a table in a very exclusive restuarant, and immediately ask what happens if you feel sick on that evening, or your car breaks down, or your cat gets hurt. The answer will likely be "Have you considered ordering pizza, Sir?". I can understand that "strict legal action" is shocking, but unless you live in a country with pretty strange legal system the worst that could happen is that once you miss a course, you are excluded from the workshop, and even that is unlikely.

So I would answer that I want to attend the workshop, explaining that I only asked because the legal action frightened me, and that I am convinced that I will attend all courses.

  • 2
    @Rishika: This depends a bit on your culture. In some places, it is somewhat usual for people to attentively read contracts they are signing, and then happily use their pen to strike out certain sentences they do not like before signing. – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 10:27
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    "Suppose you reserve a table in a very exclusive restuarant, and immediately ask what happens if you feel sick on that evening, or your car breaks down, or your cat gets hurt." - the OP isn't just asking that. The OP is saying they may be expecting an urgent phone call in a rather direct relation to their restaurant experience and wonder whether they may leave the dining area for some minutes to take that phone call, even if it means missing out on one of the various courses. – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 10:29
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    @Rishika: Well, it's your signature. No-one can force you to sign. And clearly, you are free to sign any statement you like - such as a custom selection of statements from the agreement (the ones that remain after you strike out the rest). The question is just how the workshop organizers will react to partial or complete refusal to sign the agreement by someone who is already there right before the workshop starts. (Of course, having your advisor clearly on your side would help ...) – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 10:31
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    @Jan-ChristophSchlage-Puchta: But the OP isn't exclusively asking about cancelling. They have reserved a table, are threatened with a lawsuit for any minute that they might intermediately leave the table, and are now asking whether it is ok to temporarily leave the table because the world around them does not stop for their restaurant reservation and they also have some other duties to tend to. – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 15:52
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    A workshop that is "prestigious" would not treat its potential participants this way - IMHO. – einpoklum Nov 11 '16 at 21:39
7

The question refers to the event as a workshop, but within the description the term "lecture course" and "course" are used. The agreement the organizers want you to sign mentions field trips, practicals, as well as talks and discussions.

It appears to me that this is a compressed or short academic course rather than what I would call a workshop. If attendees have the option to claim academic or professional credit for completing it, I can see why the organizers might require an agreement that outlines the requirements for successfully completing the course.

I've seen universities have strict attendance/testing requirements for summer term courses because they operate on a compressed schedule. If you miss a few days of class, it's more like missing a week or more during a normal term. This looks like something similar.

All that aside, I also think the organizer was rude in the response that was sent to you.

  • Be aware that depending on the field, workshop may mean entirely different things. – O. R. Mapper Nov 11 '16 at 20:39
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    I've never heard of a university threaten students with legal action for failing to fulfil course requirements. In that case, you fail if you don't meet them. They don't sue you as well. – cfr Nov 12 '16 at 4:16
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    I think it is just a bad collision of cultures through mails on non-native speakers. I have got some pretty rude messages from respected professors, most of the times from Asia. Legal action may mean they want back the travel support if you are there boozed sleeping in your room all the time, or that they not give credit for attendance. – Greg Nov 12 '16 at 8:56
0

After reading the two clauses a couple of times i think "strict academic as well as legal action" might be taken if you voilate clause (ii). In that case I may have no reservations. The response from organizers makes me suspect that your university is financing course fee for you or this is a university sponsored conference. If these not being the case I think you try to contact your head of department (and anonymously if you think his remarks would be just like that of your advisor). Lastly I will never attend a conference with such "attitude" peoples as there is a risk of voilation of clause (ii) :-)

-11

You're overthinking this. It's perfectly reasonable for a workshop that is in high demand to expect full attendance from the candidates lucky enough to be chosen to attend. It's slightly unusual to be asked to sign an agreement, but I imagine that springs from long and bitter experience of previous workshops, on the part of the organisers.

Viewed in this light, their email is a bit terse and cranky, but fairly reasonable. Reviews can be put off, especially if you write to the editor to let them know you will be out of touch for a few days.

If you want to attend the workshop, you should write back apologetically, and let the organisers know you will be in full attendance.

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    I no longer want to attend the workshop unfortunately... Because if I do, I may have to deal with more problems. If I fall sick, he may say that i planned it, etc etc... – girl101 Nov 11 '16 at 9:13
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    @Dylan Richard Muir - But no credible workshop would dismiss the possibility of personal emergencies. I agree that it would be reasonable to lay out expectations on attendance, but a legal agreement seems highly questionable. – user58322 Nov 11 '16 at 9:30
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    @Dylan Richard Muir - 'Personal emergencies' was only an example. It appears that they may be entirely inflexible - and willing to attempt to legally enforce the attendance agreement. Without reading the actual document, I'm assuming the worst. – user58322 Nov 11 '16 at 9:35
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    "It's perfectly reasonable for a workshop that is in high demand to expect full attendance from the candidates" You need to explain how that extends to threatening legal action and "academic consequences." – David Richerby Nov 11 '16 at 14:39
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    I'm sorry, but no, degrading your potential attendees is not reasonable. And yes, that is exactly what the response does: it directly states that if the OP doesn't come, it's because they have some kind of deficiency. – jpmc26 Nov 12 '16 at 2:10

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