BOSTON – Three MIT (search) graduate students set out to show what kind of gobbledygook can pass muster at an academic conference these days, writing a computer program that generates fake, nonsensical papers. And sure enough, a Florida conference took the bait.
The program, developed by students Jeremy Stribling, Max Krohn and Dan Aguayo, generated a paper with the dumbfounding title: "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy." (search) Its introduction begins: "Many scholars would agree that, had it not been for active networks, the simulation of Lamport clocks might never have occurred."
The program works like the old "Mad Libs" (search) books, generating sentences taken from real papers but leaving many words blank. It fills the blanks with random academic buzzwords. And it adds to the verisimilitude with meaningless charts and graphs.
Earlier this month, the students received word that the Ninth World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, scheduled to take place in July in Orlando, Fla., had accepted the four-page "Rooter" paper. A second bogus submission — "The Influence of Probabilistic Methodologies on Networking" — was rejected.
The offer accepting a paper and inviting the students to present it in person in Orlando was rescinded after word of the hoax got out, and the students were refunded the $390 fee to attend the conference and have the paper published in its proceedings.
But they still hope to go, using the more than $2,000 raised in contributions to their prank, much of it from admirers who tested the program on the students' Web site.
"We wanted to go down there and give a randomly generated talk," Stribling said.
E-mails to a conference address and to organizer Nagib Callaos were not immediately returned Wednesday, and there was no answer at the Orlando telephone number listed under Callaos' name.
According to e-mails sent to the students and information posted by Callaos on the conference Web site, reviewers detected several bogus submissions. But the reviewers provided no "formal feedback" on the second paper, so it was accepted as a "non-reviewed paper." Callaos said it would have been unfair to reject a paper because there had been no feedback.
Stribling doubts the paper fooled anyone who actually read it, which keeps the hoax a notch below a famous 1996 prank in which physicist Alan Sokal persuaded a Duke University journal called Social Text to publish a bogus article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity."
But in addition to mocking academic jargon, the pranks sheds light on what Stribling sees as a problem: conferences with low standards that pander to academics looking to pad their resumes, but which harm the reputations of more reputable gatherings.
"We certainly exposed this conference as being willing to publish any paper regardless of whether it's been peer-reviewed, which is kind of a dangerous precedent to set," Stribling said. "It's kind of dangerous to be able to pass anything off as scientifically valid."
According to its Web site, the conference featured more than 2,900 papers last year, and a preliminary program for this year's event lists presentations by researchers from numerous universities, including highly respected ones like Northwestern and the University of Texas, as well as companies such as Intel Corp.
But the conference has apparently been targeted by pranksters before.
An Australian computer scientist, Justin Zobel, describes on his Web site three papers that were accepted without comment for the 2002 conference.
One submission was purposefully nonsensical, another submission juxtaposed lines from two different papers, and the third tried unsuccessfully to sabotage itself by claiming, for instance, that the method proposed "does not work at all."