Who's Iris Pear? Nuclear physics conference accepts nonsensical 'autocomplete' study

Does the nuclear physics paper hoax suggest lazy peer editing, or predatory behavior on the part of academic organizations?

Next month, Dr. Iris Pear will present her groundbreaking new study at the International Conference on Atomic and Nuclear Physics.

Or at least she would, if she were a real person.

Iris Pear – a play on “Siri Apple” – is the invention of Christophe Bartneck, an associate professor of computer science at New Zealand's University of Canterbury. The study in question is completely nonsensical, procedurally generated by iOS’s autocomplete function. Why, then, did a conference for “leading academic scientists” select it for presentation?

On Thursday, Dr. Bartneck received an invitation to submit research for an upcoming conference on nuclear physics. With virtually no background in the subject, he decided to use autocomplete to help write his facetious submission.

“I started a sentence with ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and then randomly hit the autocomplete suggestions,” Bartneck wrote in a blog post. “The text really does not make any sense.”

Aside from a sprinkling of scientific buzzwords, Bartneck’s abstract is both off-topic and unreadable. One passage reads:

Nuclear energy is not a nuclear nuclear power to the nuclear nuclear program he added and the nuclear nuclear program is a good united state of the nuclear nuclear power program and the united way nuclear nuclear program nuclear.

And yet, Bartneck received a follow-up email just three hours later – his abstract had been accepted. From there, he could pay $1,099 to register as an academic speaker at the Atlanta, Ga. convention.

“I did not complete this step since my university would certainly object to me wasting money this way,” Bartneck told the Guardian Australia. “My impression is that this is not a particularly good conference.”

Bartneck’s study calls to mind other prominent hoaxes, such as the so-called “Sokal affair.” In 1996, the humanities journal Social Text published a study titled, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" by New York University physics professor Alan Sokal, whose paper was actually an experiment designed to test the journal’s political biases and intellectual rigor. Using logical fallacies and pseudoscientific gibberish, it argued that quantum gravity is a social construct.

New research suggests that many journals are slacking on peer review. In a kind of meta-study, Harvard biologist and science journalist John Bohannon submitted false studies to 304 open-access journals. More than half accepted his paper, which featured fake names and several basic chemistry errors.

But the acceptance of Bartneck’s fake study may be less surprising. Between its poorly designed website, open calls for abstracts, and vague location, the conference smacks of a scam.

It wouldn’t be the first organization that tried to capitalize on scientists’ need to publish. In 2014, the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology accepted a submission titled “Get Me Off Your [expletive] Mailing List." The “study,” which simply repeats the titular phrase for several pages, was submitted by Peter Vamplew, a lecturer of computer science at Federation University in Victoria after receiving unsolicited requests from the journal.

“They’re predatory journals, preying on young, inexperienced researchers who unwittingly don’t realise they’re of questionable quality,” Vamplew told the Guardian.

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