Until spring 2020, Raoult was best known as an eminent microbiologist who founded and headed the research hospital Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Mediterranee Infection, or IHU. He has discovered or researched dozens of new bacteria – naming a group of them Roultella – as well as giant viruses. By many accounts, his wide reach in the scientific community befits his temper: in 2012, Science magazine described him as “imaginative, rebellious and often contemptuous”. “He can make life difficult for you,” said one researcher.
Raoult’s thousands of publications are also subject to scrutiny. In 2006, the American Society for Microbiology banned four co-authors from its journals for one year for “misrepresentation of data” after a reviewer identified identical figures, but not in two versions of a submitted manuscript. (Rault protested the ban, saying he was not guilty.) And some researchers noted that a third of all papers Rault appeared in were in a single journal, which was staffed by some of his collaborators.
Last year, Raoult’s team issued an amendment to a 2018 study and another from 2013 that was retracted entirely (the journal said Raoult could not be reached while making its decision). Both contained clearly duplicated or suspicious images, first identified by Bick, who flagged more than 60 of his studies on PubPeer for potential problems.
And by July of last year, his most infamous study had been seen by more outside experts commissioned by the journal’s publisher. Scientists did not hold back. “Total methodological flaws,” “ignorance” and “absolute irresponsibility,” said one. Another group said it had “attracted too much attention and contributed to the demand for the drug without adequate evidence”.
Despite acknowledging these flaws, leaders of the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which publishes the journal along with Elsevier, chose not to retract the study. “In addition to the importance of sharing observational data at the height of the epidemic, we believe that a robust public scientific debate about the paper’s findings should be available in an open and transparent fashion,” he said. At the same time, a group of 500 French epidemiologists filed a complaint with local health authorities, accusing Raoult of spreading false information about hydroxychloroquine.
Raoult defended his “seminal work”, arguing that the call for withdrawal “has no justification other than the opinion of people who are deeply hostile to hydroxychloroquine”. At a French Senate hearing in September, he again played down criticism of his research. Bik “succeeded in finding five errors out of a total of 3,500 articles,” he said, admitting that there were potentially a smaller number of other errors. He denied ever cheating.
In a Senate hearing, Raoult called Bik, a term that translates to “head hunter”, a “female” who had been “stalking” him since he became “famous”. And around Thanksgiving, biologist Eric Chabriere, a frequent collaborator of Raoult’s and a coauthor of the hydroxychloroquine study, tweeted that Bick was harassing Raoult and “trying to undercut.”
He invoked his previous job at Ubiome, a microbiome-testing startup that was raided by the FBI in 2019. (Bick, who was the scientific editorial director there until late 2018, has said she was never questioned and was not involved in the founders’ alleged scheme to defraud insurers and investors.) Chabrier alleges she was paid by the pharmaceutical industry.
“I’m not sponsored by any company, but you can sponsor me on @Patreon,” Bick tweeted back, linking to his account. As he explained to Chabriere, he is a consultant to universities and publishers who want to investigate suspicious papers.
“I will be happy to investigate any of your firm’s papers as long as you pay me :-)” he added.
In the following months, Chabrier called her “a real dung beetle,” “a mercenary who only cares about money” and “someone who was paid to attack and discredit certain targets.” His supporters sometimes gathered with vague threats. Meanwhile, Raoult called her a “crazy woman” and a “failed inventor” of “mediocre intelligence”.
Later, on April 30 this year, Chabriere tweeted a screenshot of a legal complaint allegedly filed with a public prosecutor in France. It accused her and PubPeer co-founder Barber of “moral harassment,” “attempted blackmail” and “attempted extortion.” Her home address was listed. The tweet was later deleted.