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How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia

28 February 2014

From The Guardian:

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. This week, Nature reported, 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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Given the draconian contract terms imposed by academic and scientific publishers on authors and the profit margins generated for those publishers, PG can’t get too upset by this story.

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12 Comments to “How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia”

  1. Not that surprised really. A friend training in plastic surgery has about 15-20 papers to his name. It’s now part of the entry requirement for certain specialties. So on top of his clinical work, audits, journal clubs, and quality of care meetings, he has to produce papers for publication and conferences as well. He’d rather be looking after his patients.

  2. Further unsurprising is that it’s really just a new wrinkle in the age-old dual problems of plagiarism and buying papers from services. The latter is, I think, more for handing in work for a course than publishing it in a journal, but I doubt it’s unusual.

    • Exactly. Nothing really new here. It makes those of us who do science day-to-day shake our heads. And in the end it hurts the credibility of all the sciences, not just the medical community – which seems to be the worst (note – that is just a relatively uninformed opinion and not a statement of fact). It’s a real problem.

      In Germany over the past couple of years, at least four politicians have had to resign because of alleged plagiarism in their dissertations. And one of them just got a cushy diplomat job as a reward for stepping down. Sheesh.

  3. Gatekeepers are soooo diligent!

  4. So, more nonsense to wade through while actually trying to do, you know, science.

  5. Are these any worse than the human-generated fake papers?

    Seems pretty much every month there’s a paper showing doing X is going to kill you, followed a few months later by another paper showing doing X will make you live forever.

    • Often that is the spin that comes from the reporter and not the scientific paper itself.

    • Often, a research project will find a significant result that a replication doesn’t find. It happens a lot in multivariate observational studies, especially in nutrition. People should use a Bonferroni correction, but that’s often not done. It does produce a lot of spurious results.

  6. Wake me up when someone manages to generate a salable romance novel. Those are way harder to fake than a scientific paper. And way more valuable.

  7. If you delegate a task to someone in university it’s called cheating. If you do that on the job it’s called good management. What are we teaching these kids?

  8. What about software to identify instances of plagiarism? Would the Passive Voice care to comment?

  9. “Both organisations have now taken steps to remove the papers.”

    Sounds like a bureaucratic answer to me. Have they begun taking steps to remove the papers, or are they still initializing the process of beginning the steps needed to remove the papers?

    I always wondered where all of the junk science was coming from. Now I know. Papers are being dumped out there with little or no rigor, and folks are jumping on every one that proposes to have discovered the newest nutrition fad or environmental trend or psychological problem.

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