Fake papers and real conferences

fakeA couple of weeks ago I was refereeing some papers for a conference. Amidst the bunch of  regular papers (some very good, some good, some borderline, and some to be rejected), there were two that left me puzzled. They were written by the same author (who, I found out later, is a well known name in his field) and had strange-but-not-too-much titles. However, after reading a few lines, I had a really strange feeling: the paper was a sequence of completely nonsense sentences, though they apparently used the usual jargon of the field, so that I had to read them twice to be sure that they were actually rubbish rather than a shining sign of genius. Before finishing my referee report with the recommendation "Reject", I made a quick search on the Internet about the name of the author (there was no reported affiliation, and that was another alert bell ringing)... and then the whole affair was exposed. It turned out that both papers were fake ones, generated automatically through programs, and that the author of both was a fictional character created by three MIT Computer Science students. This author has a blog and even an entry on Wikipedia. The papers were written using the program SCIgen that generates random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations, using a context-free grammar. Actually, one of the papers I had to review was the very same one accepted at an IEEE conference in 2008 (you can still read the original paper Towards the simulation of e-commerce). I was aware of the phenomenon, but had never had the chance to be the one in charge of deciding the fate of the fake paper (which also means to be the person at risk of being named as a tolerant reviewer). I immediately informed my conference chairman, who had already spotted these two fake papers and decided their obvious rejection. However, I'm still surprised by this paper going around six years after the original submission. Submitting a fake paper at that time was a fingerpointing act against tolerant conferences as well as a sign of vicious ingenuity (like the first people writing virus code). Nowadays, it is just a waste of referees' time (and when the time is mine I can get rather angry…). However, the phenomenon, though known, seems to be escalating and has attracted the attention of the general press, as in this article on the Guardian. If we couple this phenomenon with the ghostwriting one (see my previous post), it looks like we are going to have a hard time...

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