Until spring 2020, Raoult was best known as an eminent microbiologist who founded and heads the research hospital Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection, or IHU. He has discovered or codiscovered dozens of new bacteria — a group of them are named Raoultella — as well as giant viruses. By many accounts, his extensive reach in the scientific community is matched by his temper: In 2012, Science magazine described him as “imaginative, rebellious, and often disdainful.” “He can make life hard for you,” one researcher said.
A handful of Raoult’s thousands of publications have also fallen under scrutiny. In 2006, the American Society for Microbiology banned him and four coauthors from its journals for a year over a “misrepresentation of data” after a reviewer spotted figures that were identical, but shouldn’t have been, across two versions of a submitted manuscript. (Raoult objected to the ban, saying he wasn’t at fault.) And some researchers noticed that Raoult was on one-third of all papers to ever appear in a single journal, which was staffed by some of his collaborators.
Last year, Raoult’s team issued a correction to a 2018 study, and another from 2013 was retracted altogether (the journal said that Raoult could not be reached when it was making its decision). Both contained apparently duplicated or otherwise suspect images, first spotted by Bik, who has flagged more than 60 other studies of his on PubPeer for potential issues.
And by July of last year, his most infamous study had been looked over by even more outside experts commissioned by the journal’s publishers. The scientists did not hold back. “Gross methodological shortcomings,” “non-informative,” and “fully irresponsible,” one said. Another group said it “raised a lot of attention and contributed to a demand for the drug without the appropriate evidence.”
Despite acknowledging these flaws, the leaders of the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which publishes the journal along with Elsevier, opted not to retract the study. “We believe, in addition to the importance of sharing observational data at the height of a pandemic, a robust public scientific debate about the paper’s findings in an open and transparent fashion should be made available,” they said. Around the same time, a group of 500 French infectious disease experts filed a complaint with local health officials, accusing Raoult of spreading misinformation about hydroxychloroquine.
Raoult defended his “seminal work,” arguing that the call for a retraction had “no justification other than the opinion of people who were fiercely hostile to” hydroxychloroquine. At a French Senate hearing that September, he once again downplayed criticisms of his research. Bik had “managed to find five errors in a total of 3,500 articles,” he said, while acknowledging that there were potentially a small number of other errors as well. He denied ever committing fraud.
At the Senate hearing, Raoult called Bik a term that translates to “head hunter,” a “girl” who had been “stalking” him since he was “famous.” And around Thanksgiving, biologist Eric Chabrière, a frequent collaborator of Raoult’s and a coauthor of the hydroxychloroquine study, tweeted that Bik “harasses” and “tries to denigrate” Raoult.
He invoked her past employment at uBiome, a microbiome-testing startup that the FBI raided in 2019. (Bik, who was scientific editorial director there until the end of 2018, has said that she was never questioned and was not involved in the founders’ alleged scheme to defraud insurers and investors.) Chabrière also accused her of being paid by the pharmaceutical industry.
“I am not sponsored by any company, but you can sponsor me at @Patreon,” Bik tweeted back, linking to her account. As she explained to Chabrière, she is also a consultant to universities and publishers who want suspicious papers investigated.
“Happy to investigate any papers of your institute, too, as long as you pay me :-),” she added.
Over the following months, Chabrière would call her “a real dung beetle,” “a mercenary who only obeys money,” and a person “paid to attack and discredit certain targets.” His supporters piled on, sometimes with vague threats. Meanwhile, Raoult called her a “crazy woman” and a “failed researcher” of “medium intelligence.”
Then, on April 30 of this year, Chabrière tweeted a screenshot of a legal complaint allegedly filed with a public prosecutor in France. It accused her and Barbour, the PubPeer co-organizer, of “moral harassment,” “attempted blackmail,” and “attempted extortion.” Her home address was listed. The tweet was later deleted.