Friday, February 28, 2014

Computer-Generated Education

Skynet goes to school:
Hoaxes in academia are nothing new. In 1996, mathematician Alan Sokal riled postmodernists by publishing a nonsense paper in the leading US journal, Social Text. It was laden with meaningless phrases but, as Sokal said, it sounded good to them. Other fields have not been immune. In 1964, critics of modern art were wowed by the work of Pierre Brassau, who turned out to be a four-year-old chimpanzee. In a more convoluted case, Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France's best-known philosophers, was left to ponder his own expertise after quoting the lectures of Jean-Baptiste Botul as evidence that Kant was a fake, only to find out that Botul was the fake, an invention of a French reporter.

Just as the students wrote a quick and dirty program to churn out nonsense papers, so Labbé has written one to spot the papers. He has made it freely available, so publishers and conference organisers have no excuse for accepting nonsense work in future.

Krohn, who has now founded a startup called Keybase.io in New York that provides encryption to programmers, said Labbé's detective work revealed how deep the problem ran. Academics are under intense pressure to publish, conferences and journals want to turn their papers into profits, and universities want them published. "This ought to be a shock to people," Krohn said. "There's this whole academic underground where everyone seems to benefit, but they are wasting time and money and adding nothing to science. The institutions are being ripped off, because they pay publishers huge subscriptions for this stuff."
You'd at least expect them to make sense...

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