By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; 10:15 AM
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Reporters who write about the technology sector crack themselves up over the abstruse, jargon-laced language of their beat.
Sometimes we'll mix and match corporate tech-talk to come up with our own press releases: "It's a plug-and-play seamless connection paradigm that produces a win-win across multiple platforms for asynchronous synergies." You might think that's laying it on a bit thick, but I've seen worse. Technology writers should get a special bonus check every year for translating geek-speak into plain English.
It turns out that certain members of the academic community feel the same way about the arcane argot of their peers. The Associated Press reported that three graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a computer program that generates fake research papers loaded with ridiculous gobbledygook -- and got one of the resulting papers accepted at a conference.
"The program, developed by 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,'" the AP reported. "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 takes its cue from the Mad Libs books that some of us grew up with. It uses sentences from real papers, but fills in blank spots with random gems stolen from academia.
Stribling told the AP that the idea was to expose the 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."
Here's a sample of what got by the conference reviewers, as posted at Blogcritics.org: "Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for congestion control, the evaluation of web browsers might never have occurred. In fact, few hackers worldwide would disagree with the essential unification of voice-over-IP and public-private key pair. In order to solve this riddle, we confirm that SMPs can be made stochastic, cacheable, and interposable."
The story got a lot of play in the global news media, even garnering an editorial from the Boston Globe. The paper's editorial board correctly surmised, "The reason something like that can slip by editors without an eye blink is that a lot of people in academia think, speak, and write that way -- and they're hardly alone. The business world can take a simple idea and turn it into a paradigm with parameters faster than a mouse click -- and the affliction keeps getting worse, no matter how many consultants are hired to promote clarity."
The event in question is the 9th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, and you may be forgiven for thinking that the conference title itself was randomly generated by the MIT students' program. Scheduled for the second week of July in Orlando, the conference is devoted to a mish-mash of topics -- information systems development, robotics, network applications, computer science and something called mechatronics.
The organizer is retired professor Nagib Callaos, who told me this morning that he's not enjoying all the free press his academic gathering is getting these days.
"I need to be honest with you sir," he said. "I really am not feeling like appreciating the joke."
Callaos explained that the conference relies on the hard work of many people, and that the organizers will have to spend even more time and money to institute a more stringent review process. "It's something like the [security] measures after September 11th," he said. "It's not nice, but you have to do it."
He agreed that scientific language can be difficult to plow through, but said that the circumstances that led to the false paper being submitted ironically stemmed from the organizers' attempt to attract a wider range of talent to the conference. In putting out many requests for papers, he ended up provoking the ire of the MIT grad students who told the Boston Globe that they figured that a conference that sends out so much "spam" might have a low acceptance bar -- in other words, the perfect target for their fake paper experiment.
MIT prankster Stribling told the AP that the episode highlights a continuing problem in the scientific world: "conferences with low standards that pander to academics looking to pad their resumes [and] harm the reputations of more reputable gatherings."
That's a debatable assertion, but what is indisputable is that language is a tool of communication, not obfuscation. Some practitioners of specialized disciplines -- from law to medicine to comparative literature -- argue that it takes complex language to accomplish a complex task. But what the MIT students showed us is that double-black-diamond vocabulary is more often about showing off verbal mastery than cognition. The real reason that many of us get caught up in technology is because we want to apply it in ways that will benefit regular people. So why not make it easier for everyone to understand what you're talking about in the first place?
P.S.: If you want to have some fun with the Mad Libs concept, be sure to check out the Alanis Morissette Lyric Generator. This has been around for years on the Brunching Shuttlecocks site, but it still delivers the goods.