Whereas artificial intelligence has long been the subject of popular science fiction writing, nowadays it’s writing it. That’s causing a bit of a headache for the editors over at popular sci-fi and fantasy magazine, Clarkesworld. The magazine has put a halt to new short story submissions due to a spectacularly high increase in spam, mostly linked to a rise in popularity of chatbots, such as ChatGPT.
We’re not talking about sentient AIs with humanoid bodies walking among us, or all-powerful computers with hauntingly human emotions gone wrong—those which have been written about in sci-fi since well before it was cool and regularly show up on the covers of Clarkesworld. But even today’s text-generating algorithms are causing a headache for editors.
Clarkesworld pays for submissions that are accepted into the magazine. The fee is based on the word count at 12¢ per word, meaning that longer submissions, if accepted, could pay out a reasonable cash sum.
Authors hoping to get into the magazine can submit all manner of work for consideration, though there are a few key rules to follow. It’s not easy to get your story published in the magazine as a lot of talented people want to do just that. The all-important rule to note here is that Clarkesworld is “not considering stories written, co-written, or assisted by AI at this time.”
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
“Since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve observed an increase in the number of spammy submissions to Clarkesworld,” Neil Clarke, editor-in-chief of Clarkesworld writes in a blog post. “… Up until recently, these were almost entirely cases of plagiarism, first by replacing the author’s name and then later by use of programs designed to ‘make it your own.’
“These cases were often easy to spot and infrequent enough that they were only a minor nuisance. Sometimes it would pick up for a month or two, but overall growth was very slow and number of cases stayed low.”
Then the AI chatbots became a publicly available tool, which has been attributed to a massive spike in attempts to spam the website since.
“Towards the end of 2022, there was another spike in plagiarism and then ‘AI’ chatbots started gaining some attention, putting a new tool in their arsenal and encouraging more to give this ‘side hustle’ a try. It quickly got out of hand.”
Updated version of the graph. pic.twitter.com/dDeWDhHZiMFebruary 21, 2023
An initial graph put together by Clarke first showed the extent of the issue. The entries since February 15 had already dwarfed January’s, and January’s spam count already made most of 2022 look paltry by comparison. In a later update, Clarke posted an updated graph from February 20, in which the number of submissions spiked so significantly that it caused Clarke to close submissions temporarily.
There are “some very obvious patterns” that are tell-tale signs of a chatbot-written submission, Clarke notes, but they refuse to go into detail.
“I have no intention of helping those people become less likely to be caught,” Clarke says.
“While rejecting and banning these submissions has been simple, it’s growing at a rate that will necessitate changes. To make matters worse, the technology is only going to get better, so detection will become more challenging.”
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For a small editorial team (or really any editorial team), there’s no obvious answer on how to deal with a sudden influx of submissions this massive. That could hurt authors that are submitting stories in good faith and without breaking the mag’s rules.
“It’s clear that business as usual won’t be sustainable and I worry that this path will lead to an increased number of barriers for new and international authors. Short fiction needs these people.
“If the field can’t find a way to address this situation, things will begin to break.”
Whatever your thoughts on these chatbots and other AI tools, there’s no doubt that they’ve changed how many people work and create overnight. There’s no going back on this technology, but we don’t yet have the answers to how many might cope with what AI generated content might always mean in the real-world, or how we might have to adapt to deal with it. I have a feeling that any submissions-based work on the web will have to formalise their relationship with AI sooner or later, even the good ship PC Gamer.