That journals can sometimes be fooled into publishing nonsense papers has been well established in some high-profile cases but these tended to be seen as isolated instances that were done deliberately, with the papers carefully constructed to prove a point.
Now the journal Nature reports on fake publications on a much larger scale using computer-generated papers. More than 120 papers were published, not in peer-reviewed journals, but in conference proceedings published by IEEE and Springer. Conference proceedings can have widely varying levels of review prior to publication. They usually face less scrutiny before they are published but the fraud is disturbing nonetheless because Springer says that these proceedings were supposed to have been peer-reviewed. IEEE has not said if their papers were peer-reviewed.
The fake papers were discovered by computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France and he says that these papers were generated using a freely available software program.
Labbé developed a way to automatically detect manuscripts composed by a piece of software called SCIgen, which randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers. SCIgen was invented in 2005 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge to prove that conferences would accept meaningless papers — and, as they put it, “to maximize amusement” (see ‘Computer conference welcomes gobbledegook paper”). A related program generates random physics manuscript titles on the satirical website arXiv vs. snarXiv. SCIgen is free to download and use, and it is unclear how many people have done so, or for what purposes. SCIgen’s output has occasionally popped up at conferences, when researchers have submitted nonsense papers and then revealed the trick.
Labbé says that the latest discovery is merely one symptom of a “spamming war started at the heart of science” in which researchers feel pressured to rush out papers to publish as much as possible.
Some of the authors are denying having anything to do with the papers published under their names while others have not responded to requests for comments.