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How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia

More and more academic papers that are essentially gobbledegook are being 
written by computer programs – and accepted at conferences


Like all the best hoaxes, there was a serious point to be made. Three MIT 
graduate students wanted to expose how dodgy scientific conferences pestered 
researchers for papers, and accepted any old rubbish sent in, knowing that 
academics would stump up the hefty, till-ringing registration fees.

It took only a handful of days. The students wrote a simple computer program 
that churned out gobbledegook and presented it as an academic paper. They put 
their names on one of the papers, sent it to a conference, and promptly had it 
accepted. The sting, in 2005, revealed a farce that lay at the heart of science.

But this is the hoax that keeps on giving. The creators of the automatic 
nonsense generator, Jeremy Stribling, Dan Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn, have made 
the SCIgen program free to download. And scientists have been using it in their 
droves. Yesterday, French researcher Cyril Labbé revealed that 16 gobbledegook 
papers created by SCIgen had been used by German academic publisher Springer. 
More than 100 more fake SCIgen papers were published by the US Institute of 
Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Both organisations have now taken 
steps to remove the papers.

Hoaxes in academia are nothing new. In 1996, mathematician Alan Sokal riled 
postmodernists by publishing a nonsense paper in the leading US journal, Social 
Text. It was laden with meaningless phrases but, as Sokal said, it sounded good 
to them. Other fields have not been immune. In 1964, critics of modern art were 
wowed by the work of Pierre Brassau, who turned out to be a four-year-old 
chimpanzee. In a more convoluted case, Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France's 
best-known philosophers, was left to ponder his own expertise after quoting the 
lectures of Jean-Baptiste Botul as evidence that Kant was a fake, only to find 
out that Botul was the fake, an invention of a French reporter.

Just as the students wrote a quick and dirty program to churn out nonsense 
papers, so Labbé has written one to spot the papers. He has made it freely 
available., so publishers and conference organisers have no excuse for 
accepting nonsense work in future.

Krohn, who has now founded a startup called Keybase.io in New York that provides encryption to 
programmers, said Labbé's detective work revealed how deep the problem ran. Academics are under 
intense pressure to publish, conferences and journals want to turn their papers into profits, and 
universities want them published. "This ought to be a shock to people," Krohn said. 
"There's this whole academic underground where everyone seems to benefit, but they are wasting 
time and money and adding nothing to science. The institutions are being ripped off, because they 
pay publishers huge subscriptions for this stuff."

Krohn sees an arms race brewing, in which computers churn out ever more convincing 
papers, while other programs are designed to sniff them out. Does he regret the beast he 
helped unleash, or is he proud that it is still exposing weaknesses in the world of 
science? "I'm psyched, it's so great. These papers are so funny, you read them and 
can't help but laugh. They are total bullshit. And I don't see this going away."

Plagiarism Detection in Term Papers, and Essays and Research

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