Adam Conner-Simons | CSAIL April 14, 2015,
In recent years, the field of academic publishing has ballooned to an estimated 30,000 peer-reviewed journals churning out some 2 million articles per year. While this growth has led to more scientific scholarship, critics argue that it has also spurred increasing numbers of low-quality “predatory publishers” who spam researchers with weekly “calls for papers” and charge steep fees for articles that they often don’t even read before accepting.
Ten years ago, a few students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab(CSAIL) had noticed such unscrupulous practices, and set out to have some mischievous fun with it. Jeremy Stribling MS ’05 PhD ’09, Dan Aguayo ’01 MEng ’02 and Max Krohn PhD ’08 spent a week or two between class projects to develop “SCIgen,” a program that randomly generates nonsensical computer-science papers, complete with realistic-looking graphs, figures, and citations.
SCIgen emerged out of Krohn’s previous work as co-founder of the online study guide SparkNotes, which included a generator of high-school essays that was based on “context-free grammar.” SCIgen works like an academic “Mad Libs” of sorts, arbitrarily slotting in computer-science buzzwords like “distributed hash tables” and “Byzantine fault tolerance.”
The program was crude, but it did the trick: In April of 2005 the team’s submission, “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,” was accepted as a non-reviewed paper to the World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI), a conference that Krohn says is known for “being spammy and having loose standards.”
When the researchers revealed their hoax, calls started coming in from the likes of The Boston Globe, CNN, and the BBC. Stribling’s phone was ringing off the hook thanks to his name being listed first on the paper. (“Randomly listed first,” he adds proudly.)
At the time the stunt may have seemed like nothing more than a silly “gotcha” moment in the tradition of the “Sokal affair,” in which an NYU physicist wrote a nonsense paper that was accepted by a journal of postmodern cultural studies. But SCIgen has actually had a surprisingly substantial impact, with many researchers using it to expose conferences with low submission standards. The team’s antics spurred the the world’s largest organization of technical professionals, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), to pull its sponsorship of WMSCI; in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing removed more than 120 papers from their sites after a French researcher’s analysis determined that they were generated via SCIgen. (Just a few weeks ago Springer announced the release of “SciDetect,” an open-source tool that can automatically detect SCIgen papers.)