Most graduate students would be delighted to have a paper accepted for presentation at an international scientific conference. But Jeremy Stribling, a computer-science graduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, wasn't sure whether to be amused or alarmed.

His paper, “Rooter: a methodology for the typical unification of access points and redundancy”, co-authored with Daniel Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn, was accepted for the 9th World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI), to be held in Florida, in July. But Stribling didn't write it; he let a computer do it.

Stribling and his colleagues have developed an ‘automatic computer-science paper generator’ that cobbles together articles adorned with randomly generated graphs. The ‘results’ are totally spurious.

The MIT researchers say they hoped to cause “maximum amusement” by aping the jargon of the less illustrious papers in computer science. But they also had a more serious goal: to test whether such meaningless manuscripts could pass the screening procedure for conferences that, they feel, exist simply to make money.

‘Rooter’ passed the test: the WMSCI accepted it, albeit without peer review. The paper claims, among other things, that “the famous ubiquitous algorithm for the exploration of robots by Sato et al. runs in Ω((n+log n)) time”.

It's not the first example of a hoax paper aimed at exposing poor reviewing and meaningless jargon. In 1996, US physicist Alan Sokal published a paper on the “hermeneutics of quantum gravity” in the journal Social Text. Sokal's paper parodied the post-modernist language of some contributions to that publication and prompted a vigorous debate about the intellectual respectability of ‘cultural studies’.

The WMSCI conferences have been running for ten years, and last year's meeting attracted nearly 3,000 papers. WMSCI 2005 advertises itself as “trying to bridge analytically with synthetically oriented efforts, convergent with divergent thinkers”.

The MIT team regards it as one of many conferences that have no scientific function and sell themselves through indiscriminate e-mails. “You see lists of speakers, and there's no one you've ever heard of,” says Stribling. “They spam us.”

Such conferences have sparked anger in the field, as demonstrated by a WMSCI submission from David Mazières of New York University and Eddie Kohler of the University of California, Los Angeles. The title, text and figures of their ten-page paper consist entirely of the phrase “Get me off your fucking mailing list”.

“I don't know why these conferences exist,” adds Frans Kaashoek, a member of the MIT computer-science group to which Stribling and his colleagues belong.

But the WMSCI's general chairman, Nagib Callaos, who is based in Venezuela and has no listed academic affiliation, has defended the conference's decision. “We did not receive reviews for some papers,” Callaos says. “Since we thought that it was not fair to reject those, we accepted them as non-reviewed ones.” The MIT paper has now been pulled.