Climate scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have withdrawn a study they wrote under eyebrow-raising pseudonyms.
Normally, a withdrawal wouldn’t raise our eyebrows, but climate scientist Gavin Schmidt pointed out on Twitter that the authors’ names are eerily similar to another pair who have published climate papers together: Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller. Yes, that’s correct — Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez are Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller spelled backwards. Nikolov and Zeller are currently listed as a physical scientist and a meteorologist, respectively, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The notice doesn’t state the reason for withdrawal, and Pascal Willis, editor-in-chief of Advances in Space Research from the Earth Physics Institute in Paris, France, referred us to the study’s authors for more information. Elsevier, which publishes Advances in Space Research, confirmed that the paper was retracted due to an “authorship issue” — namely, that the authors had used pseudonyms.
We used the contact information listed on the paper for “Den Volokin,” and got this response:
The paper went through a normal blind peer-review and was accepted based on its scientific value. I might be able to discuss the actual reasons for the withdrawal at a later time with you, but not at the moment.
The notice for “Emergent model for predicting the average surface temperature of rocky planets with diverse atmospheres,” which was issued before the paper could be published in print, reads:
This article has been withdrawn upon common agreement between the authors and the editors and not related to the scientific merit of the study. The Publisher apologizes for any inconvenience this may cause.
Volokin and ReLlez are listed as based at Tso Consulting; one version of the retracted paper includes an address in Salt Lake City. When we searched for the address, we found an apartment unit on realtor.com.
Volokin noted that the paper is now under consideration at “another major journal.”
Schmidt, who is a climatologist at NASA, told us he came across the now-retracted paper because it cites another paper co-authored by Volokin and ReLlez, “On the average temperature of airless spherical bodies and the magnitude of Earth’s atmospheric thermal effect,” published in 2014 in SpringerPlus. (A side note: SpringerPlus stopped accepting papers earlier this year.)
Schmidt took his criticisms to Twitter:
Top tip for climate contrarians: When you submit nonsense papers to journals, spell your name backwards so no-one knows who you are.
— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) September 12, 2016
Volokin, however, told Retraction Watch:
We stand firmly by the results reported in both papers, since these are supported by strong physical/mathematical arguments and observed NASA data. These papers present evidence revealing a new theoretical paradigm regarding drivers of planetary climates.
As with any other new paradigms in the history of science, there is an initial fierce resistance by the Establishment (in form of attempts to suppress inconvenient publications), and it takes time for such fundamental new ideas to get widely accepted…
Volokin referred us to this 2013 “Anonymity in Science” piece published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by “Neuroskeptic,” a neuroscientist who pens a blog under a pseudonym. In that paper, Neuroskeptic writes:
I argue that pseudonymity and anonymity, although not appropriate for all forms of scientific communication, have a vital role to play in academic discourse. They can facilitate the free expression of interpretations and ideas, and can help to ensure that suggestions and criticisms are evaluated dispassionately, regardless of their source.
We asked Volokin if he is, in fact, Nikolov, but have not yet heard back.
Nikolov and Zeller, meanwhile, have published a couple of articles together, as well — along with a 2011 poster, the pair have these papers:
- “Efficient retrieval of vegetation leaf area index and canopy clumping factor from satellite data to support pollutant deposition assessments,” published online 2005 in Environmental Pollution
- “Modeling coupled interactions of carbon, water, and ozone exchange between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere. I: model description,” published in 2003, also by Environmental Pollution.
Volokin and ReLlez aren’t the first fake names to be used in the literature — in 1978, Polly Matzinger added the name of her dog (Galadriel Mirkwood) to a Journal of Experimental Medicine paper, protesting the use of passive voice in scientific papers. What’s not yet clear here, however, is whether or not the authors disclosed to the journal that they were publishing under assumed names.
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