How computer-generated fake papers are flooding academia

Academia rot spreading.

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.

... 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.

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 sees an arms race brewing, in which computers churn out ever more convincing papers, while other programs are designed to sniff them out.



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That is good ammo for theists that want to discredit science as a whole. When we try to explain the nature of a theory, "peer review" is the strongest point we have to differentiate scientific theories from theistic claims and to differentiate confident trust from faith. Now peer review is in question, as it appears that being published in a journal does not require ANY humans to actually look at your work. Should we downgrade all published theories to hypothesis pending someone actually replicating the experiments (or proving them wrong)? I kind of thought this was how it worked in the first place.

Obviously theories like the Big Bang, Quantum Mechanics, Relativity and Evolution have been thoroughly confirmed and are still regarded as 'factual'. But what of ideas like String Theory? There is a fine line between gobbledegook and theories too difficult for anyone to sufficiently understand them enough to conceive experiments that could test them. With things like String Theory and Big Bang singularity theory out there using the "theory" label, how can we trust anything science at all?

I vote to reintroduce the term "theorem" into the vernacular. Perhaps calling concrete explanatory frameworks that have been tested and verified "theorems" can solve this confusion. Let the theists keep using 'theory' in the colloquial equivalence to guesswork. The "theorem of Evolution" even sounds more concrete. The point is that if scientific publications don't review papers to at least confirm if a human wrote them, and things like String Theory get to use the theory label though they lack any evidence... at some point the scientific community will have to wake up and create a more strict system of peer review. 

Otherwise they risk the loss of all credibility and we will see crackpots and theists submitting papers, which would get past the detector programs as they won't contain random words or equations, and the trust we have in science will become indistinguishable from faith to theists. And they would be right.

This all started with Science Wars and the Sokal Hoax. They exposed postmodernist BS, like feminism, by creating nonsense papers. What was better is that these were written by humans and carefully selected for the postmodernist's Science Wars issue where they were supposed to be debunking the hard sciences like physics etc.

I disagree with equating feminism with "postmodernist BS". Unfortunately much of the world is still at a point where it's a "radical notion"* that women are people.

* A chance to set the attribution straight: as Dr. Beverly McPhail of the University of Houston explains, "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" is usually attributed to the authors of A Feminist Dictionary, Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler. In fact the definition came from an article by Marie Shear (in New Directions for Women, May/June 1986), favorably reviewing A Feminist Dictionary while adding quite a few of her own definitions.

(McPhail also quotes more definitions of feminism on her page "Feminism: A Radical Notion".)

Haha! I should try this out. ;-)

The phenomenon is a call for better peer-review processes. It also exposes a phenomenon of the last 10 years or so involving unscrupulous conference organizers and journal publishers taking advantage of the publish or perish imperative. It does not say much about science in general since none of these papers ever makes it to widespread use. Most likely, these papers will never be cited. 

This phenomenom is also a call for publicizing the reputation (or lack thereof) of various publishers and conferences.

(I thought that Springer and IEEE were both reputable! Apparently whatever divisions the fake papers were submitted to took unacceptable shortcuts with "peer review" -- the examples of nonsense papers string together buzzwords in a superficially sophisticated way, yet carry no real information to anyone familiar with the field.)


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