A mini-Sokal hoax: abstract of physics paper written by computer, and in complete gibberish, accepted for conference on physics

In the famous Alan Sokal hoax, now twenty years old, a physicist got a bogus, post-modern paper accepted by the pomo journal Social Text. Now the tables are turned—sort of. This time, as the Guardian reported yesterday, a non-physicist hoaxed a physics conference by submitting an abstract, immediately accepted, that was written almost completely by computer. It was complete gibberish, proving that nobody looked at the paper, and that the conference was probably just a garbage meeting designed to make money.

I didn’t know what iOS autocomplete was, but apparently it’s an Apple program that can be used to finish written text with stuff that’s generated by computer (correct me if I’m wrong).  And a professor used it to write an entire paper. From the Guardian:

Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the Human Interface Technology laboratory at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, received an email inviting him to submit a paper to the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics in the US in November.

“Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper,” he wrote in a blog post on Thursday. “I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions.

“The atoms of a better universe will have the right for the same as you are the way we shall have to be a great place for a great time to enjoy the day you are a wonderful person to your great time to take the fun and take a great time and enjoy the great day you will be a wonderful time for your parents and kids,” is a sample sentence from the abstract.

It concludes: “Power is not a great place for a good time.”

Bartneck made a video, posted in his website, showing how he did it:

But wait! There’s more!

Bartneck illustrated the paper – titled, again through autocorrect, “Atomic Energy will have been made available to a single source” – with the first graphic on the Wikipedia entry for nuclear physics.

He submitted it under a fake identity: associate professor Iris Pear of the US, whose experience in atomic and nuclear physics was outlined in a biography using contradictory gender pronouns.

The nonsensical paper was accepted only three hours later, in an email asking Bartneck to confirm his slot for the “oral presentation” at the international conference.

“I know that iOS is a pretty good software, but reaching tenure has never been this close,” Bartneck commented in the blog post.

The conference itself, to be held in Georgia in mid-November (see link above), looks pretty dicey. For one thing, read its call for abstracts:

And, as the Guardian notes:

The International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics. . . is organised by ConferenceSeries: “an amalgamation of Open Access Publications and worldwide international science conferences and events”, established in 2007.

It also has a $1099 speaker registration fee.

The Guardian describes what Bartneck wrote as a paper, but it’s actually an abstract of a paper, complete with a bogus diagram and a phony photo of the author. You can see it here, and I’ve put a screenshot below:

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-11-10-58-am

I get invitations all the time from bogus organizations that invite me to submit papers or give talks on forestry, molecular biology, immunology, and all sorts of things for which I have no credentials at all. There are a lot of organizations out there preying on scientists who, I guess, think that going to such meetings gives them professional credibility. And it must work, or why would these meetings and journals continue to exist?

h/t: Barry

33 Comments

  1. Rita
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    $1099 Speakers fee? WOW! I’m amazed anyone would pay to speak.

    • rickflick
      Posted October 22, 2016 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      They should pay you@!

    • Posted October 22, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      I guess that this nice number motivated the acceptance of the nonsensical abstract.

  2. Heather Hastie
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I hope this becomes widely known about and this industry is exposed. There isn’t enough money being spent on science as it is and the thought that a whole lot is probably being spent on conferences like this in order to boost a scientist’s credentials is annoying. It also says something pretty nasty about the way credibility can be obtained.

    • Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that many people are being fooled.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        I’d agree, but these type of conferences have been going on for a while so they must be making money. As someone who’s pretty ignorant about science stuff, I’m not sure I would always be able to tell the difference.

        • Posted October 22, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          It’s pretty cheap to do. You ring up a hotel and book a large room for a couple of days. That’s up to $1000 or so; if it’s out-of-season the hotel might give you it at a reduced price on the basis that they then get room bookings from any delegates. Then they only need a couple of people paying their “attendance fees” and “speaking fees” and they’re making a profit. They also likely have a cancellation clause with the hotel allowing them to pull the plug if too few book.

      • Posted October 24, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Brian Leiter (philosopher of law, Nietzsche etc. and a legal scholar) does a lot of “philosophy profession gossip” and he got an email from an embarrassed graduate student who got roped into one of the “bogus journals”. The student was rightly concerned with academic reputation.

  3. Peter N
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Jerry neglected to include a link to the conference’s “call for abstracts” page, but it looks legit to me (I jest):

    Nuclear and sub-atomic material science it the investigation of the properties, flow and collaborations of the essential (however not major) building pieces of matter. A pivotal segment of this is understanding the conduct of the electrons that encompass the nuclear core; these elements command the way iotas and atoms communicate with their surroundings.

    Possibly that, too, was composed by iOS autocomplete?

    • Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Most electrons I know have been charged with disorderly conduct.

      • phoffman56
        Posted October 22, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

        Yes, “collaborations” for electrons must be tough to achieve. The Pauli exclusion principle won’t let them even speak a common language surely.

  4. Posted October 22, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “… ‘I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper,’ [Bartneck] wrote in a blog post …

    Sounds like Bartneck resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help him writing the blog, too.

  6. Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    … and that the conference was probably just a garbage meeting designed to make money.

    This really is the crucial bit of the post. This is not a physics conference organised by physicists with some reputable physics organisation behind it. In today’s world, unscrupulous people set up online “journals” or organise “conferences”, charge substantial fees for attendance or publication, and their aim is simply to make money.

    So, no physicist will have reviewed this abstract and no physicist will have been fooled by it. They would have “accepted” literally anything submitted.

    • Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Yeah; this isn’t really anything like the real Sokal hoax, if you ask me.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 22, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        My thoughts exactly.

        And, the results of iOS autocomplete that the guy submitted are obviously gibberish and utterly inferior to the results produced by e.g. the Postmodernism Generator or the Deepak Generator, which have a certain verisimilitude to them.

        cr

      • Posted October 24, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        I agree.

        The conference is just the contents of spam targeted to academics (or those with legitimate academic publications, like me). Instead of fake (or grey market) drugs or software, what academics need/want is targeted. And it works on the same principle – the return on investment is astonishingly high with only a handful of “bites”.

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 22, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Coel replies well; my experience too, though mine are mostly ‘conferences’ whose subject is a whole list of BS generality. They especially like the phrase “cross-disciplinary”. Maybe math is a bit too precise to be used for this type of scam. Dr. Coyne’s post is good, though the phrase near the end: “..organizations out there preying on scientists ..” might be better with ‘pseudo-scientists’. Surely scientists of any heft don’t fall for this stuff. But worries about some tenure/promotion committees in some institutions is probably not out of place.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted October 22, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Agree with Musical Beef. Sokal was carefully crafted so as to pass muster with the pomo pseuds who had no real understanding of what science is. In contrast, the first sentence of this abstract is gibberish, and it just gets worse from then on. I can’t think who would possibly be fooled into paying money to attend, still less speak at, this “conference”.

  7. Posted October 22, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    This is one of the famous “OMICS” conferences, which are famous predatory conferences on every subject imaginable. The OMICS involvement can be discovered by examining the journals that will be publishing the conference victims’ “papers”. OMICS is their publisher.

    • Posted October 22, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Curiously, one of the organizers of this sham is a real person with a good job: Manijeh Razeghi. She may be milking the scam for her own resume, which claims she has given more than 1000 invited or plenary talks and that she has been the chair or on the organizing committee of many international conferences.

      • Posted October 24, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Are we sure she’s an organizer? Leiter (see above), IIRC, heard from someone whose name had also been “harvested” as an “editor” – perhaps to make one of the bogus journals look more respectable.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted October 23, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      OMICS is their publisher.

      Shirley a “C” missing here.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 23, 2016 at 7:22 am | Permalink

        🙂

        cr

  8. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen such conferences in engineering too. Conferences range all the way from serious in-depth conferences right through to totally phony money-grubbing rorts like the one quoted above. (Trump University also comes to mind – sorry, PCC). There are also quite a lot ‘in the middle’ – ones that are not top-level but not a complete waste of time either.

    cr

  9. Diane G.
    Posted October 23, 2016 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    A line on a résumé is a line on a résumé.

  10. David Harper
    Posted October 23, 2016 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    I’ve had a couple of invitations to this “conference” recently at my .ac.uk email address. I have never worked in atomic and nuclear physics. That was the first clue that this is a scam. The second was the speaker’s fee. Both emails went in the junk folder.

  11. Mike
    Posted October 23, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Love it.!

  12. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted October 23, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I can’t remember the details but I am sure I remember reading (possibly in New Scientist’s ‘last word’ column) about someone else sending a similarly spoofed abstract to one of these types of conferences and having it accepted.

  13. Posted October 23, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    To me this is a very interesting topic, and on several levels.

    First, the crappy for-profit conferences – and journals! As a botanist I have always wondered who falls for these, given that they are so obviously incompetent and fake. At Jeffrey Beall’s blog, for example, everything is written under the assumption that lots of legit scientists fall for it, but in my field at least that idea would be ridiculous.

    Competent colleagues all know what the serious conferences and journals are, and if somebody sent them a garbled English invitation to an unknown one with a hefty price tag they’d just bin it. I tend to think that most speakers or authors in these would be poorly trained or incompetent scientists who are unable to get into legit outlets, but if anybody has any better insights I am all ears.

    Second, the different conference cultures themselves, in the various fields. In my area, for example, something like a Sokal hoax might more easily happen because even totally legit annual society meetings generally accept all abstracts (unless they are off-topic), with review being limited to 1-2 people of the organising committee reading the abstract.

    I also understand that in some fields it is (a) difficult to get into conferences and (b) super-important for the CV to do so, whereas in mine it is (a) easy and (b) more of a “learn what others are doing and network” thing. Point is, if somebody is desperate in the former kind of fields they might be easier prey for these kinds of organisers.

    Finally: describes what Bartneck wrote as a paper, but it’s actually an abstract of a paper.

    A lot of people appear to call talk abstracts “conference papers”, and I have never understood why, seeing as how there is no paper involved. Does anybody have any insights on why that is?

    Thanks.

  14. Ann
    Posted October 23, 2016 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    This is so interesting to me because when I father was at Cornell University in the 1920’s, he and his friends were disgusted with a physics professor and so hired an actor from New York to come to Cornell and give a physics lecture. They wrote a “complete gibberish” lecture for the actor to recite and then interviewed their professor, who praised the speech. They then published his very laudatory comments in the college newspaper with the disclosure of the stunt. That might have been when he was invited to leave Cornell!!!

  15. Ben
    Posted October 24, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    There’s additional info and discussion on this kind of Spamference at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=29015

    “Spamference” means “crap conference, publicized via spam and organized solely to raise money, gratify mediocre and stupid scientists’ vanity, and corruptly divert travel budgets into providing free vacations.”

    The abstract author is quoted as “Since I have practically no knowledge of nuclear physics I resorted to iOS autocomplete function to help me writing the paper,” he wrote in a blog post on Thursday.
    “I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions. “The text really does not make any sense.”

    Geoff Pullum described the use of iOS autocomplete as a “handy method of generating gibberish in order to humiliate the conference organizers.”

  16. Zetopan
    Posted October 29, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    You accidently left out a word in your title line: “… accepted for conference on CRACKPOT physics”


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