Science publisher fooled by gibberish papers
Offbeat | Agence France-Press | Updated: February 28, 2014 13:24 IST
Paris: Publisher of science journals Springer said Thursday it would scrap 16 papers from its archives after they were revealed to be computer-generated gibberish.
The fake papers had been submitted to conferences on computer science and engineering whose proceedings were published in specialised, subscription-only publications, Springer said.
"We are in the process of taking down the papers as quickly as possible," the German-based publisher said in a statement.
"This means that they will be removed, not retracted, since they are all nonsense."
Springer added: "We are looking into our procedures to find the weakness that could allow something like this to happen, and we will adapt our processes to ensure that it does not happen again."
The embarrassing lapse was exposed by French computer scientist Cyril Labbe of the Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble.
He also spotted more than 100 other "nonsense" papers unwittingly published by the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the journal Nature reported.
In a statement to AFP, the institute said it had been advised "there might have been some conference papers published in our IEEE Xplore digital library that did not meet our quality standards."
"We took immediate action to remove those papers, and also refined our processes to prevent papers not meeting our standards from being published in the future," it said. The statement gave no further details.
Labbe, 41, has been exploring how to detect fake papers written with a programme called SCIgen.
At the press of a button, the programme cranks out impressive-looking "studies" stuffed with randomly-selected computer and engineering terms.
Here is an example: "Constant-time technology and access points have garnered great interest from both futurists and physicists in the last several years. After years of extensive research into superpages, we confirm the appropriate unification of 128-bit architectures and checksums."
This "paper" comes complete with fake graphs and citations - essential features in scientific publishing - that in SCIgen's case includes recent references to famous scientists who died decades or centuries ago.
The programme was devised in 2005 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
They used it to concoct meaningless papers that were accepted by conferences. The researchers later revealed the hoax to expose flaws in safeguards.
SCIgen is freely available online, at http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/
Labbe told AFP he spotted the frauds by searching for telltale SCIgen vocabulary.
In 2010, he used SCIgen to create 102 bogus papers by a fictitious scientist and added these to the Google Scholar database, an index of science prestige.
For a time, "Ike Antkare" ranked 21st on the database's list of most-cited scientists in the world -- higher than Einstein, who ranked a lowly 36th.
The fake papers detected by Labbe were submitted to conferences between 2008 and 2013. They were uncovered through research he published in 2012 in Scientometrics -- by coincidence, also a Springer journal.
In some cases, he said, a paper's introduction or conclusion were rewritten by a human to appear more authentic at first glance -- a veneer presumably aimed at fooling superficial scrutiny.
'Peer review' under pressure
Labbe said the fraud struck at the credibility of peer-reviewed systems in which scientific claims are meant to be assessed by independent experts for soundness.
"There are several possible explanations" for the fakes, he said.
"One is that people are just testing the system, but if that's the case, they should reveal who they are and they haven't done so," said Labbe. "Another is that the papers are a deliberate fraud to make money."
Springer said scientific publishing, like other fields, "is not immune to fraud and mistakes".
"The peer-review system is the best system we have so far and this incident will lead to additional measures on the part of Springer to strengthen it."
Also on Thursday, South Korea's Supreme Court upheld an 18-month suspended jail term against Hwang Woo-Suk, accused of embezzlement and abuse of ethics in one of the most notorious frauds in science publishing.
Hwang shot to fame in 2004 when he published papers in the prestigious US journal Science claiming to have created the first stem-cell lines from a cloned human embryo.
The claims raised hopes of new treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's, and Hwang and his team were showered with money and national honours.
His findings were later found to have been faked. No stem cells had been produced.
Story First Published: February 28, 2014 13:21 IST