Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

U.S. gov’t scientist says he was banned from climate research at work — so he used a pseudonym

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A scientist working for the U.S. government says he was told not to work on climate research during working hours, nor reveal his government affiliation when presenting results. So he published his research under a pseudonym instead.

The researcher explains all this in a recent erratum for one of the papers he published under a different moniker — confirming why he and his co-author used the same pseudonyms to publish another now-withdrawn paper that presented some controversial climate findings. That withdrawal — which we covered in in September (as did the Washington Post) — raised eyebrows after Twitter users began pointing out that the authors — Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez — have similar names to another pair of researchers: Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller

Nikolov’s use of a pseudonym even prompted a misconduct investigation by his employer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

Here’s the erratum, issued last week for a 2014 paper in SpringerPlus:

As authors of this article (Volokin and ReLlez 2014) we would like to clarify that our real names are Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller. We created the pseudonyms Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez by spelling our names backward. Ned Nikolov is a physical scientist with the USDA Forest Service; he had been instructed by his employer not to engage in climate research during government work hours, nor to reveal his government affiliation when presenting results from his climate studies. Karl Zeller is a retired USDA Forest Service research scientist with no restrictions. Ned Nikolov worked on this manuscript outside of his assigned official work duty hours. Because of the controversial subject matter and the novel findings previously associated with Nikolov and Zeller, we felt that the use of pseudonyms was necessary to guarantee a double-blind peer review of our manuscript and to assure a fair and unbiased assessment. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused the Editorial Board and the readership of SpringerPlus.

Nikolov told us why he thinks he was barred from conducting climate research at work:

In 2012, I gave a webinar to some scientists at my work place (the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station), where I presented analyses of surface temperature data from several official sources, i.e. NASA, NOAA, HadCRU, RSS, and UAH. The purpose of my presentation was to inform my colleagues about the fact that there had been no appreciable warming for about 15 years despite a continuous increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration.

He added:

…my presentation in the spring of 2012 was not received well, and shortly thereafter I began hearing rumors that some scientists were upset by the content of my talk and thought that I had misinterpreted the data and was disseminating misinformation. I then had a meeting with one of the Assistant Directors of the Rocky Mountain Station, who asked me to cease any climate-related research as a government employee and a federal physical scientist despite the fact that my official duties include working with weather data on a daily basis and sometime with climate information as well.

Nikolov noted:

I was told by the Assistant Director and my immediate supervisor that, if I wished to continue my climate research, I may do so only in my spare time and outside of my official duty hours, and if I publish any climate papers, I may not show my USFS affiliation on such publications.  As a justification for this restriction they stated that climate research was not a part of my official duties …

The 2014 study, “On the average temperature of airless spherical bodies and the magnitude of Earth’s atmospheric thermal effect,” has been cited once, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters.  

Here’s how the authors describe their affiliation in the paper:

The authors have PhD Degrees in physical sciences and work as environmental consultants for a non-profit organization in Utah, USA.

A spokesperson for the USDA Forest Service told us:

Ned Nikolov has a PhD but is not a research scientist by his Forest Service position description.  He is assigned to a professional support position, and he is not under a research grade.  Therefore, his assignment does not include conducting research as a lead author.  His work is mostly dedicated to supporting the research of other scientists.  He is not held tighter than anyone else under USDA policy…

The spokesperson pointed us to the underlying policy, which reads [their emphasis added]:

[It is the policy of the Department to] ensure that scientists may communicate their findings without political interference or inappropriate influence, while at the same time complying with USDA policies and procedures for . . . reporting scientific findings, and reviewing and releasing scientific products.  Such communications include research on policy-related issues when appropriate to the role of the agency and scientist; however, the scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently. Communications on such matters should remain within the bounds of their scientific findings.

Nikolov told us his employer carried out a probe into his use of pseudonyms, and sent us this letter he received on November 22, which says that the organization

did not find any clear and convincing evidence that [Nikolov] had committed any form of misconduct.

Nikolov added,

I now continue working on the physics of climate in my spare time, and intend to publish results under my real name in the future.

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Written by Dalmeet Singh Chawla

December 13th, 2016 at 11:30 am

  • Karl Zeller December 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    As a clarification to the FS spokesperson’s statement above note that Dr. Nikolov is a physical scientist working for the USDA FS RMRS Research, Development and Applications Program and not being classified as a ‘research grade’ scientist does not legally restrict him from publishing research as a lead author. However in his current position such publications can not be applied towards obtaining promotions. Furthermore Dr. Nikolov currently manages an operational fire weather forecasting project that he was previously instrumental in developing with me when we both held research grade positions. The forecasting project was advanced from research to the RD&A for operational implementation and Dr. Nikolov was put in charge upon my retirement from the FS. Hence his work is not dedicated to supporting the research of other scientists but to support the operational needs of field users with research science based products.

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