Fake Papers, Chastened Pride

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

I wonder which is stronger: the desire for erotic pleasure or the desire to avoid ridicule? Which is stronger: the craving of the body for sexual pleasure, or the craving of the ego for notable praise? It’s hard to measure, because erotic power is mainly in the body, while fear of ridicule and love for praise are mainly in the soul. Both are massive compared to the human resources to control them.

Published Gibberish

I was chastened recently by the news that 120 published academic papers have been withdrawn because they were mere gibberish. I’ll explain why this was chastening in a minute. But first be astonished by this news.

Computer generated papers were accepted for publication, though they were nonsense. There is a piece of software called SCIgen which randomly combines strings of words to produce fake computer-science papers. It was created by folks at MIT “to prove that conferences would accept meaningless papers” and, as they said, “to maximize amusement.”

The fake articles have titles such as, “Application and Research of Smalltalk Harnessing Based on Game-Theoretic Symmetries,” and “An Evaluation of E-Business with Fin,” and “Simulating Flip-Flop Gates Using Peer-to-Peer Methodologies.”

You should be laughing.

Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, specializes in tracking down the fakes, and experimenting with his own. He has found fake papers that made it into 30 published conference proceedings. “Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, based in New York.”

He himself generated 102 fake papers by an imaginary author, Ike Antkare. He added them to the Google Scholar database and made Ike “the world’s 21st most highly cited scientist.”

Pride Behind Praise and Fear

Now here’s why I was chastened. When I thought about where this folly comes from, it seemed to me that one huge impulse behind it is the love of praise and the fear of ridicule. The love of praise drives people to create academic systems that feed on the notoriety of publishing. Faculty are pressured to publish (get a name for themselves and the institution) from inside by their own sin of pride, and from outside by a ‘publish or perish’ ethos.

Then there are the folks at the conferences and journals who get a paper they can’t understand. Why not flag it as gibberish? Perhaps they’re too busy to read it. Or maybe because, Who wants to risk the ridicule of telling the next Einstein he is talking nonsense?

When I was done laughing, I prayed:

O God, I am guilty of this kind of pride-driven cowardice — fearing to say what needs to be said because I hate the feel of ridicule. I have tasted the powerful craving to be known and praised. O Lord, it is so deep and so malignant. Have mercy.

Jesus’s indictments of the love of human praise are unrelenting:

  • “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1)

  • “They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5)

  • “They disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:16)

  • “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” (Matthew 23:5)

  • “They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matthew 23:6–7)

  • “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another?” (John 5:44)

Paul joins him: “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

And when it comes to the fear of being treated as fools, Jesus will not even talk to people driven by this fear. The Pharisees would not answer Jesus’s question whether the baptism of John was from heaven or from man because “they were afraid of the people” (Mark 11:32). And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mark 11:33).

The World Inside of Me

It may be because I am old. Maybe, but I recall it always being this way: For me the power of pride is stronger than the power of lust. Lust is not subtle or tricky. Its strategies are not novel or complex. It is not creative. You feel it coming, and you know its ways. There are strategies to strike it a good blow.

Pride — the craving for praise, and the fear of ridicule — approaches in a hundred guises. Just when you think you have chopped off its head, it produces another. Chop it up in pieces, and, like a hydra, each piece becomes a monster. Walk away, and suddenly you realize the way is circling back. Acknowledge it publicly, and start to feel the warmth of approval. Write a blog about it and wonder if it will be “liked.”

So I was chastened by the folly of the world. Because it is the world inside of me. The crucified world. So I prayed again. Perhaps you will want to pray with me:

Lord, I hate my sin. I know that Pharisaic envy of your popularity killed you. Pilate’s fear of man killed you. Gentile self-serving mockery killed you. I killed you. And by your grace, I love you. I cling to you. My heart cries: You are my only hope. Have mercy on me. Forgive me. And work in me true humility. Be so satisfying to me that my sinful cravings and my fears die. Without you, I am a wretched man. There is no deliverance from this body of death and this struggling corpse of an ego, but through your death and resurrection and all-satisfying presence. I turn from my sin. I trust you. I praise you. In your blood and righteousness, Amen.