U.S. gov’t researchers withdraw climate paper after using pseudonyms

adv-space-resClimate scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have withdrawn a study they wrote under eyebrow-raising pseudonyms.

The withdrawn paper, about predicting surface temperatures of planets, appeared in Advances in Space Research in August, 2015, and is authored by Den Volokin and Lark ReLlez.

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 Elsevier, which publishes Advances in Space Research, confirmed that the paper was retracted due to an “authorship issue” — namely, that the authors had used pseudonyms.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This article has been withdrawn upon common agreement between the authors and the editors and not related to the scientific merit of the study.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:

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.

Volokin added:

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:

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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16 thoughts on “U.S. gov’t researchers withdraw climate paper after using pseudonyms”

  1. It would be elegant to be honest about it towards the journal, but I see no problem with people publishing under a pseudonym.

    The most famous article would be the one published by William Sealy Gosset under the pseudonym Student, which gave us the Student’s t-test.

  2. Ned Nikolov was a signer of Will Happer’s letter to urge Lamar Smith to hassle NOAA, i.e., wasting US tax $.

    His entry there read:
    NIKOLOV, Ned, Ph.D., Physical Scientist (with expertise in atmosphere- ecosystem interactions, vegetation remote sensing, fire-weather forecasting and climate dynamics), USDA Forest Service.

    to which I add some items from people who may be familiar to studiers of pseudo-science:

    https://tallbloke.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/unified-theory-of-climate-nikolov-and-zeller Nikolov adds many comments.
    ‘David Appell says:
    March 14, 2014 at 3:14 am
    So did this Zeller and Nikolov paper ever get published, or not?
    I have asked them a couple of times over the years, but now they have stopped responding. I take that to mean, no, it hasn’t gotten published, and that, yes, the knowledgeable critics above were right after all — N&Z’s idea is wrong.
    [Reply] There are many ideas in N&Z’s work, not just one. They are still developing and refining them. they still respond to me. I’m not surprised they’ve stopped responding to you.’

    scienceblogs.com/stoat/2012/01/22/i-feel-dirty critique, many comments

    Roy Spencer disagrees with silly idea.

    1. From the OP:

      Volokin added:
      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…

      After poisoning his own well by allying with the despicable Congressman, Nikolov can hardly be surprised at encountering “fierce resistance” no matter what name he tries to publish under. One wonders what he thinks the purpose of peer review is, or how he distinguishes “inconvenient” publications from those that are merely without merit.

      Tangentially: was “On the average temperature of airless spherical bodies and the magnitude of Earth’s atmospheric thermal effect” an attempt to revise the entire history of climate science beginning with Fourier?

  3. Hello,

    I’m Ned Nikolov a.k.a. Den Volokin, one of the authors of the planetary-temperature model paper withdrawn by JASR. We adopted pseudonyms as a measure of last resort, since we could not get an unbiased review from scientific journals under our real names.

    We felt that the discovery we’ve made through analysis of vetted NASA observations of planetary bodies in the Solar System had fundamental implication for the current Greenhouse Theory. However, our manuscripts kept being rejected by science journals (sometime even without a review!) after editors and reviewers Google our names and discover the online discussion that a poster of ours sparked in 2012. Our manuscripts were often criticized on points that are not even discussed in the text … So, we decided to hide our names not to dodge responsibility, but to allow the readership (including journal editors and reviewers) to see our results for what they really are without being influenced by prejudices related to our true identities. We purposefully chose pseudonyms that were not difficult to decipher yet shielded our identities well enough to permit an unbiased read of our work. We wanted pseudonyms that could relatively easily be linked to our true identifies in the future if needed.

    For more information about our research, please read the Comments section in this Washington Post article:

  4. “we could not get an unbiased review from scientific journals under our real names”
    Dr. Nikolov, can you please provide evidence to support this claim. Can you indicate what journals exactly? Can you show evidence of this “bias”? Most journals nowadays still use single- or double-blind peer review, so how can you be sure that the peers knew your real identities in those “biased” peer reviewed submissions, especially in blinded papers? What was your sample size of rejections? I would say that a couple of rejections would not need a “last resort”, but certainly 100 rejections might. Even so, is the use of false names / identities a satisfactory “last resort”?

  5. Jaime,

    Yes, we have the evidence for the biased rejections, but we’d like to discuss this elsewhere. Our first paper was rejected 4-5 times, while our second paper was rejected 3 times. We know the cause for the bias, because reviewers or journal editors would mention our 2012 online poster as an argument in their rejection recommendation.

    Also, we have never encountered a journal that would do a double-blind peer review. All journals we worked with would hide the names of the reviewers from us, but would show our names, affiliation and addresses to the referees. Double-blind reviews are still a rare practice among science journals. I believe that this type of reviews should become the standard.

    Another major problem we encountered, which I mentioned in my answers to the WP reporter (see link above), is the current practice of rejecting manuscripts based on reviewers’ personal opinion about the importance or implications of reported results. If the analyses are done correctly and the stated conclusions are supported by numerical results, then the manuscript should be accepted for publication. It should be left up to the broader readership to decide later on (after the paper is published), what is the importance or relevance of reported findings to the field. This review principle is only followed by a few journals. Most outlets allow reviewers to reject a manuscript based on their personal judgement about the importance of the findings … I hope you’d agree that this is wrong.

  6. Our overall experience has been that the current peer-review system cannot handle well new (‘transformative’) science as named by Thomas Kuhn. It only seems to work for normal (‘augmentative’) science … New concepts tend to be rejected (although well supported by empirical evidence and math), simply because they are unfamiliar to reviewers and editors and do not fit in their ‘worldview system’. I think this has been a persistent problem throughout the history of science, though…

  7. I encourage everyone who is interested in the actual science to read our 2 papers. These tell the physics story much better than any press release or blog discussion:

    2014.”On the average temperature of airless spherical bodies and the magnitude of Earth’s atmospheric thermal effect”

    2016. “Emergent Model for Predicting the Average Surface Temperature of Rocky Planets with Diverse Atmospheres”

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