If you’re like me, you’ve occasionally read a research article in a respected journal and then asked yourself, “Huh?!? Was that written by monkeys on typewriters?” Evidence continues to accumulate that peer review is not necessarily a foolproof guard against nonsense in print. In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal had his essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” published in Social Text, only to immediately reveal that his essay was an intentional spoof designed to reveal the potential for absurdity in radical cultural studies. The hoax sparked a firestorm in academia.
Now it appears that intentional nonsense is pervasive — at least according to this new article in Slate.
In 2005, a group of MIT graduate students decided to goof off in a very MIT graduate student way: They created a program called SCIgen that randomly generated fake scientific papers. Thanks to SCIgen, for the last several years, computer-written gobbledygook has been routinely published in scientific journals and conference proceedings.
According to Nature News, Cyril Labbé, a French computer scientist, recently informed Springer and the IEEE, two major scientific publishers, that between them, they had published more than 120 algorithmically-generated articles. In 2012, Labbé had told the IEEE of another batch of 85 fake articles. He’s been playing with SCIgen for a few years—in 2010 a fake researcher he created, Ike Antkare, briefly became the 21st most highly cited scientist in Google Scholar’s database.
The article goes on to discuss the implications of how the publish-or-perish imperative in academia might make such a farce less surprising than we expect, and why this is a problem. It’s a good read — check it out!