Are our undergraduate engineering (BE) students being forced to publish papers?

Since the fake paper I managed to publish this weekend, I’ve been hearing disturbing reports that even undergraduate students are being forced to publish papers by college authorities.

It is my understanding that there are no University requirements that make it mandatory for undergraduate engineering students to publish papers either as a part of their BE Project, or anything else.

Update: Looks like I was partially mistaken. Here is the University of Pune’s BE Computer Engineering Syllabus. With reference to BE Projects, on page 56, bullet #5 says this:

Students must submit and preferably publish atleast one technical paper in the conferences held by IITs, Central Universities or UoP Conference or International Conferences in Europe or US.

My reading of the line indicates that submission is compulsory, but publication is not. Also, at least they’re clear in specifying what is an acceptable conference. But still, in my opinion, this can’t end well…

I have first hand experience with this. A student group who did their BE Project with me a couple of years ago were desperate to get their BE Project published (in fact, as I pointed out in my previous article, this incident is what started off the thought process that culminated in my fake paper this weekend). I protested that this requirement makes no sense, and forced them to go to their college and get the issue clarified. They came back to me and reported that they were told by college authorities that it was a mandatory requirement. What if the students were unable to get your paper published? The students were told to attach rejection letters from the conference – but submission was compulsory, they were told. At that time, my worry was that all these BE students would submit substandard BE Project reports as research papers to conferences and spoil the reputation of Indian researchers. Little did I know that the papers would actually get accepted by the conference they submitted the paper to.

Now comes something even more ridiculous.

Check out this notice from a prominent Engineering College in Pune:

Notice making it mandatory for students to publish papers
I was sent this image of a notice put up in a prominent local Engineering college, and was told that this requirement was made mandatory by the college for 3rd year BE students (October 2013). I was told that most of the students did publish papers. I have not yet verified whether this is indeed all true, but based on my past experiences, I am sure there are colleges where the students are indeed to forced to try to publish papers during their undergraduate studies.

(Note: I am neither disclosing where I got this information from, nor the name of the college – because I don’t want the students to get into trouble, and also because I’m not particularly interested in targeting any specific person or institutions. I’m more interested in seeing how we can change the system.)

I was told that this notice was a requirement for 3rd year engineering students last semester (Fall 2013)!! The only good news here is that the students were being reimbursed for (part of(?)) their expenses. But other than that, there are so many things wrong with this picture.

The worst thing was pointed out to me by a friend on Facebook:

Also, do point out that student themselves are so indoctrinated, they actually, sincerely believe that publication is a requirement. This is why the market is ripe for [conferences like these].

I know firsthand that students believe that such publications are actually good for them and their resume. I guess I am an idiot for arguing with them that this is not true.

Is this a common occurrence? Are other BE colleges making such arbitrary publication requirements? What can/should be done about this?

Fake Paper Impact: UoP VC to issue circular clarifying that publications are not mandatory

Since the fake paper I managed to publish this weekend, and the resulting Mid-Day story, the reporter from Mid-Day has been busy following up with next steps.

One day later, there are two new stories in Mid-Day.

The first one is good news. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Pune has confirmed that publications are not mandatory for getting an ME/MTech degree, just recommended. Considering that students are being given an incorrect impression, a circular is being issued to the colleges in the University of Pune clarifying this.

Read the full story here

Another, less savory aspect of this affair is the impact on the people involved in the organization of that conference. The story related to that is here, and manages to uncover some more interesting details of what was going on behind the scenes at that conference.

How I published a fake paper, and why it is the fault of our education system

I am currently too upset to be able to do a good job of writing this article concisely and effectively, so please be patient and read the whole rambling thing. Note also: I’m not upset about the existence of one such conference – the real problem are the publish-or-perish rules in colleges/universities that are forcing the students to such conferences (of which there must be hundreds). Update: Mid-Day has done an article on this issue – you can check that out.

Consider this:

Seems like an impressive conference, and getting a paper published in this conference should be a big achievement on any student’s resume, right?


We submitted to two fake papers to this conference – one was complete gibberish auto-generated by using the online fake paper generator at SCIGen, while the other was auto-generated gibberish interspersed with completely ridiculous statements, movie dialogues, and other random things. Both these papers where accepted by this conference. We paid the conference registration fee for one of the papers, and that was published in the conference proceedings, and we did not pay the registration fee for the other paper, so that paper was not published by them. The conference fee is Rs. 6000 for M.Tech. students (but we managed to get a 50% discount just by haggling with them in the same way we haggle with vegetable vendors).

Note: the paper that actually got published is such that anyone reading past paragraph #2 of the paper will realize it is complete nonsense. You be the judge of whether a paper like this should be acceptable to any conference which claims that papers are “peer reviewed and evaluated based on originality, technical and/or research content/depth, correctness, relevance to conference, contributions, and readability”

I would recommend you read the whole paper, but even if you don’t, note the following things:

  • Paragraph #2 of the introduction, on the first page itself, says: You should read any paragraph that starts with the first 4 words in bold and italics – those have been written by the author in painstaking detail. However, if a paragraph does not start with bold and italics, feel free to skip it because it is gibberish auto-generated by the good folks at SCIGen.
  • One section of the paper consists entirely of dialogues from the movie “My Cousin Vinny.”
  • And the conclusion section of the paper actually has this: And we’ve managed to reference Hilbert, HHGTTG, Sholay, My Cousin Vinny, Jeff Naughton, the Wisconsin Database Performance Paper, Xeno’s paradox, Meeta Kabra and the website, and we even referenced the Sokal Affair in the heading of the paper (actually in the name of the institute that the authors are from, but you get what I mean, right?) proving once and for all that nobody has read this paper.

And this paper, was not just accepted, but also published in the conference proceedings. From early morning of 29th December (IST) to 11am of 30th December (IST), the paper was listed on the conference website and you could actually download from there. As expected, a few hours after this story broke on 30th December, the paper disappeared from the conference website without a trace. We were expecting this, so here is a long list of people who downloaded the paper form the IRAJ website, on December 29 and morning of December 30 2013, and confirmed that the paper indeed contained nonsense. (Note: we tried to get the Wayback Machine to archive the paper, but due to the way the Wayback Machine works, the updated page has gotten archived.)

Is it just a case of low standards?

One science reporter suggested on twitter that maybe this is a case of a conference so desperate for papers that rejection rates are low. Someone else suggested that this might simply be a case of a conference that has no review process, so anything is published.

Not quite. The organizers are clearly claiming that there was an expert review process for acceptance into the conference. For each of the two papers we submitted, they first sent one email saying that the paper had been sent for review. Later we received an ACCEPTANCE LETTER which appeared to indicate that the paper had been accepted based on 4 review scores. Note: we never received any actual review feedback from any reviewer – this point becomes relevant below.

Just to confirm that there was no misunderstanding of the process followed by the conference, I landed up at the conference with a journalist from Pune Mid-Day, and we interviewed the organizers about the conference.

The organizers made the following claims (which I managed to audio record on my phone):

  • The conference received 130 submissions out of which only 60 were selected.
  • All the papers were reviewed by panelists from a panel of international experts using a double-blind review methodology.
  • Only high quality papers were accepted
  • All accepted papers were sent reviews from at least 3 reviewers each and the authors were then asked to update the papers based on the review comments. (No such thing happened with the 2 papers we submitted to the conference.)

Who are affected by such conferences?

When I went to the conference, I found about a dozen delegates who all had papers to present, and most of them were M.E. or M.Tech. students from various parts of the country. There were 2 students who had come all the way from Odisha to Pune just for this conference. One of them had brought his mother along for the conference too. Two students had come from Solapur. There students from local Pune colleges too. All of them had paid the conference registration fees, and the travel costs from their own pocket. All of them were publishing because it was a requirement for their degree.

I had gone to the conference with the intention of making a ridiculous presentation along the lines of my ridiculous paper, and create a scene at the conference with the reporter and photographer from Mid-Day. However, after seeing the sincere faces of all the students there, I just couldn’t make myself do it. Instead of introducing myself as an author of a paper, I introduced myself as a reporter from and joined the Mid-Day reporter in interviewing the organizers. I just stayed long enough to record the statements of the organizers and left.

How did I get involved in this?

Two years ago, I was an external advisor for a B.E. Project. My students told me that the University has a requirement that all B.E. Projects must be published in an international conference. This is such a patently ridiculous requirement that I tried to convince them that they must be mistaken. However, I couldn’t convince them.

So, I tried to prepare them for failure by pointing out that an average or even above-average B.E. Project report is not of the quality that can get published in a good conference. Imagine my surprise when the paper actually got accepted. And nothing I could do could prevent my students from paying Rs. 6500 as registration fees and going all the way to Kanyakumari using their own money to present at that conference.

This convinced me that misguided policies are forcing students into paying money to get papers published in conferences with low or non-existent quality standards. And I was sure that there must be many such conferences. And I needed to do something about this issue.

Ever since that happened, I’ve been waiting for one such conference to come to Pune so that I could prove, beyond any doubt, that these conferences accept anything as long as you are willing to pay the registration fees.

Update: as far as I know, it is not a university requirement that BE Projects must be published – that was just probably a case of a few colleges misguiding students. However it either is a mandatory requirement for ME/MTech, or lots of colleges are telling the students that it is a requirement.

Is this issue important?

Is this really an issue worth getting worked up over?

As far as we understand, all M.E. and M.Tech. students in the country are required to publish at least two papers, otherwise they cannot get their degree. This results in a country full of desperate students who have no choice but to pay for getting published at conferences like this one.

The conference organizers told us that:

  • The organization which held this conference has been in operation for 3-1/2 years
  • In that period they have held over 120+ such events
  • Each event has had an average of 30 to 50 presenters
  • They operate our of 4 major centers in India – Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, and I forgot the 4th.

This is just one organization. I’m sure there must be many more such organizations all over the country.

In the past, we have heard of some colleges who told the students that it was mandatory for undergraduate (B.E.) students to also have published their B.E. project in an international conference. On a similar note, the organizers of this conference very passionately told us that they would like this to become a mandatory requirement across all the undergraduate engineering colleges in the country. Which of course would increase the size of the problem by an order of magnitude. I’m sure some bureaucrat sitting in some office is giving this some serious thought.

What to do?

My original intention of doing this was to spread awareness amongst students about the true nature of such conferences.

But now, after having gone through the experience, I am a bit depressed. I don’t know how awareness about this issue is going to help.

  • Even if students are aware of the issues, it is still very difficult to figure out whether any given conference indeed has high quality standards and a good peer/expert review process or not.
  • Even if there was an easy method of being able to distinguish between good conferences and bad ones, what are the students expected to do? They can’t graduate without publications.

The root of all evil is this stupid rule that mandates that all M.E./M.Tech. students must have two publications. Until that is changed, this sort of a thing will continue to thrive. (Note: I don’t really know for sure whether there is indeed such a rule, and whether it is applicable to all colleges in India – I’m just repeating what I heard from the students and the organizers of that conference.)

The more I dig into our education system, the more depressed I become.