Science Pseudonyms vs Science Sockpuppets

By Neuroskeptic | May 10, 2014 8:43 am

As you might have noticed, I blog (and tweet and comment) under a pseudonym. Recently, I defended the use of pseudonymity and anonymity in science in a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal  – published under my pseudonym.

So I was, at first, alarmed to see that Italian physicist Lorenzo Iorio has just published a Letter on A New Type of Misconduct in the Field of the Physical Sciences: The Case of the Pseudonyms Used by I. Ciufolini…

“He’s saying that scientists using pseudonyms is a form of misconduct!” I thought to myself.

science_sockpuppetIt turns out that the story is rather more complicated – and very bizarre. The background here is that many astrophysicists are trying to measure the gravitomagnetic frame-dragging effect, one of the most interesting predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The predicted effect is tiny, so it’s very difficult to measure. One experiment that has tried to detect this effect is called Laser Geodynamics Satellites (LAGEOS).

According to the new piece, the leader of LAGEOS, Italian physicist Ignazio Ciufolini, published two manuscripts, each criticizing one of the rivals to LAGEOS. These rivals were other projects that tried (and seemingly succeeded) in measuring frame-dragging. Ciufolini didn’t sign these critiques with his own name, however. He used two different pseudonyms: “G. Felici” and “G. Forst”.

“Felici” and “Forst” each used a Yahoo email address (i.e. not an academic one), and each listed as a contact address an institution that does not in fact exist.

“Felici” and “Forst” published their criticisms in 2007. Last year (i.e. six years later), the moderators of the arXiv site, where the manuscripts had been posted, outed Ciufolini as the true author of both, dubbing him “a physicist based in Italy who is unwilling to submit articles under his own name” and who “repeatedly submits inappropriate articles under pseudonyms, in violation of arXiv policies.” (For more on this saga, see this blog.)

In my view, this is misconduct, not however because Ciufolini wrote under pseudonyms, but because he went further and used sockpuppets. A sockpuppet is a pseudonymous identity that lies about its own identity, most commonly by pretending to be the real identity of a non-existent person. The problem, then, was that Ciufolini’s pseudonyms did not appear to be pseudonyms.

Had Ciufolini posted his articles under a blatant pseudonym, like, er, say, “GravitomagnetoSkeptic”, he would not have done anything wrong. Readers would have been able to decide how much credence to give to someone who writes as “GravitomagnetoSkeptic”. Readers could also have judged for themselves the probability that “GravitomagnetoSkeptic” was in fact Ciufolini.

Instead, by means of using sockpuppets, Ciufolini deceived readers about the authorship of the papers, claiming that they were written by unrelated third-parties, when in fact he wrote them. Had he merely used a blatant pseudonym, he would not have lied – he would just have chosen not to claim authorship. So, in my view, Iorio’s interesting Letter would have been better titled:

“A new type of misconduct in the field of the physical sciences: The case of the sockpuppets used by I. Ciufolini…”

ResearchBlogging.orgIorio, L. (2014). A new type of misconduct in the field of the physical sciences: The case of the pseudonyms used by I. Ciufolini to anonymously criticize other people’s works on arXiv Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology DOI: 10.1002/asi.23238

  • Mavan

    That seems a strange distinction. Realistic pseudonyms are common practice in literature. Did you think it was misconduct for JK Rowling to publish a book as Robert Galbraith?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good point. I don’t think that’s misconduct in literature because a) it’s widely accepted and b) no-one could accuse it of being malicious or underhanded. She didn’t gain anything directly by using a pseudonym, in fact the book would probably have sold better if she’d used her famous name.

      However had “Robert Galbraith” published a review of some rival wizard-based fantasy novel and called it ‘no match for Harry Potter’ that would clearly be wrong…

      • Mavan

        I think you’re right. But malice and underhandedness seem orthogonal to the realism of the name being used. If you, as Neuroskeptic, wrote a review of work written by someone who was a real-world rival, and praised work published under your real name, that would be pretty underhand too I think.

        Incidentally, it’s not just literature that has a tradition of realistic pseudonyms: Nicolas Bourbaki is a fairly plausible name.

        • eirikr1

          many criminal laws have a requirement of “criminal intent”. A man can sign his partner’s name to a police report they both rolled on since he wrote most of it and it’s all true.
          But if he wasn’t even there, and his name is put on it with the intent to deceive, then a fraud has occurred. …

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      The distinction here is that the author’s name in literature has nothing to do with the credibility of what is written. The work can be judged on its own merits.

      It science writing it is VERY important to be forthcoming about any conflict of interests, and certainly it is not ok to falsify credentials.

      You are correct in saying that the Neuroskeptic identity should not be used to critique the work of others when a conflict of interest might exist without first establishing what that conflict may be.

      The idea here is that the work should not be misrepresented as being something other than what it is. If Neuroskeptic is publishing in peer reviewed journals about journalism, then we know what lens to view that through as the relevant “identity” has been established by the work that we all read.

      Now if it were to turn out that Neuroskeptic was a strong organic food advocate and was writing about the topic without informing us of that preexisting personal bias, that would be crossing the line.

  • Pingback: Ignazio Ciufolini detto G. Forst detto G. Felici – Ocasapiens - Blog -

  • Andrew

    On Twitter you can find “Physics arXiv blog” once you elect to follow it saves repetitive visits to the arXiv archive proper as they present a weekly round-up of recent submitted Papers.

    • Ignazio Ciufolini

      The defamatory and offensive paper by Mr. Lorenzo Iorio was finally withdrawn from JASIST.

      Incidentally, the two papers mentioned by Mr. Iorio can be seen and downloaded at:

      • Lorenzo Iorio

        Mr. Ciufolini is free to name it as he prefers, but he cannot ignore that he was not removed because it was found either incorrect or unethical, but only for alleged “legal reasons” a.k.a. intimidations. He should primarily rant and rave against arXiv, who exposed him. Moreover, he cannot ignore that those preprints were never published in any peer-review journal. Finally, I am grateful to Mr. Ciufolini for having generously put GP-B and my interpretation of the MGS data at the same level.

  • TheNomadicFamily

    great article neuroskeptic. i liked it :) thanks for sharing, good luck!

  • Tom Campbell-Ricketts

    Seems to me that using a fake identity might arguably not be unethical. What does strike me as clearly unethical is to pose as several different fake people, thereby fabricating a false consensus.

    • Neuroskeptic

      But then, even one fake identity is creating a false consensus, is it not, if you use it to agree with your real identity?

      • Tom Campbell-Ricketts

        Yes. But my point is that using a fake identity doesn’t entail this. What makes sockpuppetry unethical is the false impression of support, not the mere fact of making up a convincing false identity.

        (There are other things that can make sockpuppetry bad, such as using a false identity to circumvent a ban on commenting, but still, it isn’t the false identity in itself that constitutes the violation of ethics.)

        I don’t think it’s the difference between obvious pseudonym and convincing false identity that defines a sock puppet – it’s called a sock puppet because one identity is under the control of another, not because one identity employs a fake name.

        Anyway, I’m right, because Sooty agrees with me, don’t you Sooty? [Sooty nods.]

  • andrew oh-willeke

    Hollywood recognizes a similar concept. There is nothing wrong with having a consistent stage name and they have have a special one, “Alan Smithee” that you use in the credits when you wish to disavow your connection to a project that is not up to your standards.

  • Ignazio Ciufolini

    Mr. “Neuroskeptic”,


I am addressing this letter to Mr. “Neuroskeptic” because
    we do not know your real name. I am writing about the article of yours
    published in “Discover” entitled “Science Pseudonyms vs Science
    Sockpuppets”, in which my name was explicitly mentioned. 

    As Oscar Wilde said,
    “The only thing worse than being talked about is 
not being talked

    However, in regard to your article and to that of Mr. Lorenzo Iorio
he recently published in the “Journal of the Association for Information 
    and Technology” (JASIST), I am attaching here below an open letter sent to the
    editor of that journal. In addition, in regard to your own article, I point out
    that one thing is to write a general article expressing 
ideas on some conceivable
    difference between pseudonyms (as the one you use) and sockpuppets, and a
    drastically different thing is to do so by explicitly writing, under pseudonym,
    a person name (mine) based on unverified information and containing precise

    As written in my letter to the editor of JASIST, I strongly
    believe that such offensive words as “fraudulent” (used by Mr. Iorio) have to
    be avoided. Since it is unacceptable to write and publish several sentences
    with my name using offensive words such as “fraudulent”, “misconduct” and “have
    lied” (in your article), this can be clearly interpreted as a will of the
    writer to harm the reputation of a person!

    Sincerely yours


Prof. Ignazio


    20, 2014

Dr. Blaise Cronin

Editor-in-chief JASIST
Indiana University
    School of Informatics and Computing

    1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, IN



Mrs. Meghann Knowles
Managing Editor JASIST



Recently your journal published an article entitled “A new type
misconduct in the field of the physical sciences: The case of the pseudonyms
    used by I. Ciufolini to anonymously criticize other people’s works on
    arXiv” by Mr. Lorenzo Iorio, in which my name was explicitly mentioned. Specifically, Mr. Iorio accuses me in posting on the ArXiv (an online
    repository of electronic preprints of scientific papers) some of my works under
    pseudonyms “Forst” and “Felici”.

    However, any accusation
    in this world must be propped up with proof.
Without proof, accusation becomes
    libel and slander. The misaccusation by Mr. Iorio is based solely on a previous
    hypothesis by the ArXiv moderators that was later on removed by the ArXiv and
    substituted by: “This submission has been removed because ‘G. Forst‘ is an
    apparent pseudonym, in violation of arXiv policies” . This sentence was on the ArXiv before Mr.
    Iorio published his offensive paper. That means that the ArXiv moderators
    realized the mistake or at least the risk of using a statement without proof.
    Consequently, Mr. Iorio should not have used the name Ciufolini nor the editor
    of a journal should have allowed to publish a paper with such offensive words
    and unproven statements. In other words the content of the above article is
    based on an unfounded accusation. 

    A propos, let me mention that many
    scientists and writers used
pseudonyms. One example is Sir Isaac Newton who,
    among various other names, used “Jehovah Sanctus Unus”. About other
    pseudonyms, see: “Dictionary of Pseudonym: 13,000 Assumed Names and Their
    Origins”, 5th ed., by Adrian Room. Therefore, I believe that in a
    scientific paper is not important the name of the author but the soundness and
    correctness of the scientific arguments being used. 

    Specifically, I strongly
    believe that such offensive words as “fraudulent” (used by Mr. L. Iorio) should
    be avoided and I do not understand why you allowed to use such words without
    any verification of the facts on your part. In my opinion, it is a part of the
    Editor’s work to make sure that such language is never used in science-related
    discussions. It is unacceptable to write several sentences with my name using
    offensive words such as “fraudulent” and “misconduct”. This can be clearly
    interpreted as a will of the writer to harm the reputation of a

    Sincerely yours,


Ignazio Ciufolini

Professor of physics and
Investigator of the LARES experiment

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thank you for your letter. I wonder if you could clarify a point: do you deny submitting the articles to arXiv under the pseudonyms “Forst” and “Felici”?

      You call the accusations “unproven”, but this is not the same thing as calling them “false”. Are you saying that they are false?

      If they are false then both I and Dr Iorio owe you a profound apology.

      • Lorenzo Iorio

        Some clarifications are in order.

        a) I did not take any part in the arXiv actions in the whole story. Suffice it to say that I noticed their comment exposing Mr. Ciufolini in December 2013, after it was posted in September 2013.

        b) As such, in December 2013 I asked arXiv when they altered their original comment. In their reply, sent after they censored themselves for the first time, they did not write that they made any mistake or error in identifying Mr. Ciufolini. Simply, they invoked alleged “changes in their policies” to justify the censoring of their own comments

        c) After a few weeks, arXiv not only re-instated their comment exposing Mr. Ciufolini as “Gerhard Forst”, but they went even further by exposing also the other pseudonym used by Mr. Ciufolini against myself, i.e. “Gianni Felici”

        d) The further self-censoring by arXiv was not perfect since there still several sites displaying their original comments about the Forst case

      • Ignazio Ciufolini

        Dear Mr. “Neuroskeptic”,

        I inform you that your article on “Science Pseudonyms vs Science Sockpuppets” and the corresponding comments, based on the letter to the editor of JASIST by Mr Iorio, have no more any ground because that letter from Mr. Iorio has
        been removed from the JASIST (Early View) website and will not now be published in the Journal (as it was removed the previous comment on the ArXiv).
        Best regards
        Ignazio Ciufolini

        • Neuroskeptic

          As of now, the letter is still available to me on the Wiley JASIST website here:

          And is listed here under Early View: (“Article first published online: 28 APR 2014”).

          • Neuroskeptic

            Three days later it is still available.

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            After having been accepted for publication by B. Cronin, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, in January 2014, and after having been published as Early View on 28 April 2014, my Letter to the Editor has been withdrawn by B. Cronin, who changed his mind due to the pressures by Mr. Ciufolini. The post-publication rejection letter by B. Cronin reads:


            It is clear that there exist between you a deep-rooted disagreement related to the matter of alleged pseudonymous publishing, one that, on reflection, I do not feel should be aired in the pages of JASIST. You are both career physicists, active in the field and working in Italy. Moreover, as best I can tell, you have actually co-authored papers on multiple occasions. It, therefore, makes much more sense for your disagreement, whatever its origins and dimensions, to be discussed and arbitrated on locally by members of either the physics community or the Italian higher education system.

            The letter from Dr. Iorio has been removed from the JASIST (Early View) website and will not now be published in the Journal.

            Yours sincerely,

            Blaise Cronin”

            The uncorrected proofs can be found at


          • Neuroskeptic

            Thanks for the update.

            I note that the retraction notice does not state that your Letter was either unethical, or incorrect.

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            Indeed, of course. As all can note, it was just a “political” decision which, I think, has no precedents in the field of academic publishing. All of the readers can make their own judgement.

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            It maybe interesting to notice that the “Editor-in-Chief” B. Cronin accepted my Letter on 5 Jan. 2014 as a Special accept (without external review). See the screenshot below.

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            Mr. Ciufolini, who ranted and raved against my words, may be interested to know that, actually, he should thank the “Editor in Chief” B. Cronin for some of them. Indeed, as he can notice below, I was suggested to use the word “misconduct” just by the “Editor in Chief” B. Cronin himself when I edited my Letter under his wise gudance.

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            There is an update. Today, journal’s webiste displays the following: “The withdrawal has been agreed for legal reasons” This further supports that my Letter was neither unethical nor incorrect. Simply, they got scared by legal threatenings…

        • resipisence

          it’s probably too late for you to actually deny any of the allegations at this point, they are what you should have started with really…

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            In their reply, arXiv were clear: no errors made.

            “Dear L. Iorio,
            Thank you for your message.

            The original comment on arXiv:0712.3934v2 was modified in September 2013.

            Neither the original comment or the modified one reflects current arXiv policy. We have altered the comment accordingly.

            arXiv moderation”

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            The “original comment” they refer to is the one they kept from 2007 to Dec. 2013 pointing towards Mr. Ciufolini without explicitly mentioning him.

    • Guest

      This is the screenshot of my Letter in JASIST

  • Lorenzo Iorio

    Screenshot of the Letter to the Editor: ” A new type of misconduct in the field of the physical sciences: The case of the pseudonyms used by I. Ciufolini to anonymously criticize other people’s works on arXiv ” published online as early view on 28 April 2014 in
    Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology

  • Guest


  • Lorenzo Iorio

    It is difficult to understand how an institution like arXiv could have taken the decision of publicly exposing an individual without any solid evidences. Moreover, please note that if, on the one hand, the name of Mr. Ciufolini was explicitly written in September 2013, on the other hand, arXiv practically exposed him since the beginning in 2007 until September 2013. Indeed, the long-lasting retraction comment clearly pointed towards Mr. Ciufolini.

    Look at here


    and here (# 282)

    About the further self-censoring by arXiv, it is easy to realize that they acted under some forms of-how to say?-“pressures” by somebody…

    Moreover, if Mr. Ciufolini was really neither “Forst” nor “Felici”, repeatedly cited by himself in several presentations, slides, etc., as reliable and trustable references, it is difficult to relaize why he felt the need of make here an otherwise unnecessary and unjustified apology of the use of pseudonyms in science.

  • Guest

    Why Mr. Ciufolini do not try to submit his “reply” to the journal, instead of invoking another censorship?

  • Guest

    Why Mr. Ciufolini does not try to submit his reply to the journal, instead of invoking another censoring actions?

  • Lorenzo Iorio

    Why does not Mr. Ciufolini try to submit his reply to the journal, instead of invoking further censoring actions, after those made by arXiv itself?

  • Lorenzo Iorio

    Here is the full text of the Letter to the Editor

  • Lorenzo Iorio

    Just a further, quite obvious reflection. Apart from the fact that the answer by arXiv to me is quite clear, but, gentlemen, please…do you seriously think that if arXiv did really made [twice] a so gigantic error in identifying Mr. Ciufolini with both Forst and Felici (disclosed after the first self-censoring and re-instating of Forst..), it would not have posted any sort of apologies, excuses and so on in retracting its own comments?? Excuses and apologies which, of course, would have been spread over by Mr. Ciufolini with every conceivable mean!! Please, do not be ridicolous…..

    • Neuroskeptic

      Has Dr Ciufolini ever stated explicitly that he did not write the ‘Forst’ and ‘Felici’ manuscripts?

      I could not find such an outright denial in any of his comments in this thread, but perhaps I am overlooking something.

      • Lorenzo Iorio

        No. he did not. Basically, his points are
        a) “[Of course, I wrote those preprints, but] since arXiv removed any indirect and direct reference to me (although an overwhelming evidence..), you cannot formally prove your allegations!!!”
        b) “I am foaming with rage againts you, Mr. Iorio, because you are calling things with their obvious name, i.e. misconduct, fraudulent, etc., and you wrote my name!!”

        • Lorenzo Iorio

          Recall that on 9 September 2013 arXiv wrote Mr. Ciufolini’s name at the Forst paper, on 19 December 2013 (just after I started to circulate it after having casually noted it…try just to imagine the bombing of legal threats, etc. by Mr. Ciufolini to arXiv) arXiv removed it (writing to me that they…changed their policies, not that they erroneously identified Mr. Ciufolini), on 28 December arXiv AGAIN wrote Mr. Ciufolini’s name at the Forst paper AND ALSO at the Felici paper, on 14 Febraury arXiv removed his name comically changing also the email used by Mr. Ciufolini into…, so that now Felici is…..arXiv!!!! So, what else?

          • Lorenzo Iorio

            ….Just note that, actually, arXiv switched from into… in all the three versions of the CiuFelici paper!!! Ehi, arXiv! Damn you! How the hell did you permit to write that preprint against me by using the pseudonym “Gianni Felici”, giving then the blame to Mr. Ciufolini!!!?!?

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  • Lorenzo Iorio

    A new episode in the saga! Today, arXiv has accepted to post the preprrint I submitted some weeks ago with the content of the retracted letter, which is now available at

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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