Fake Research Papers: How Did More Than 120 'Gibberish' Computer-Generated Studies Get Published?

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Two journals removed more than 120 fake research papers.

Two journals have plenty of tough questions to answer for after it was discovered that 120 published research papers were computer-generated and essentially "gibberish." The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and Springer, a publisher of scientific journals and research, agreed to remove more than 120 fake studies following an investigation by Cyril Labbe of Joseph Fourier University.

Labbe spent two years analyzing research papers and discovered that more than 120 conference proceedings, as well as research papers attached to specific conferences, were published in 30 different journals, reports Nature. This occurred over the course of five years, from 2008 to 2013, and 16 studies were published in Springer journals and in journals published by the IEEE.

According to Slate, the source of the problem is a prank devised in 2005 by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT students created a program, SCIgen, that could create fake research papers as a way to test the review process for conferences. The program is free and can be downloaded by anyone to create a fake research paper.

Researchers also submit a SCIgen (or similar program) paper as a way to expose and raise awareness of unsound procedures. Open-access journals accept a fee for publication and that could lead to fake research articles being published as long as they receive payment. One such example occurred in 2009, when a graduate student submitted a computer-generated paper that was accepted after the author paid the $80 submission fee, reports Nature. It turns out that, despite claims of oversight, many conferences accept these research papers and Labbe's investigations have led to serious questions about the approval process.

Labbe said he has emailed the authors, editors and other affiliated members of the conferences where the fake papers originated, but has received only a few replies. Some of the authors claim that they did not know their name was attached to the fake research, and one editor denied being a program chair for a conference despite being listed as such. Labbe created a website in 2012 that can detect SCIgen papers by searching for words typically used by the program. This method uncovered 85 fake papers that were published in IEEE.

One explanation for the rash of fake papers is due to the pressure to get published. Quote in Nature, Labbe called it a "spamming war started at the heart of science." Since academic positions are to some extent based on productivity, researchers may be tempted to inflate their publishing numbers. Labbe said the issue highlights a problem with the peer review system for both subscription-based journals, which do not require a fee, and open-source journals.

Labbe had previously highlighted problems with Google Scholar when his fictitious researcher Ike Antkare became the 21st most-cited scientist in the world despite not publishing a single legitimate research paper, notes Nature.

Following the news of Labbe's research, Springer issued a statement that said, "There will always be individuals who try to undermine existing processes in order to prove a point or to benefit personally. Unfortunately, scientific publishing is not immune to fraud and mistakes, either. 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." Springer said it will work with Labbe and will go through its 2,200 journals and 8,400 books to find possible SCIgen articles. 

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