Until spring 2020, Raoult was best known as a prominent microbiologist who founded and directs the research hospital Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection, or IHU. He discovered or co-discovered dozens of new bacteria – a group of them are named Raoultell – as good as giant viruses. By many accounts, his vast reach in the scientific community is matched only by his temperament: in 2012, Scientific journal describes him as “imaginative, rebellious and often dismissive”. “It can make your life difficult,” said one researcher.
A handful of thousands of Raoult’s posts have also come under scrutiny. In 2006, the American Society for Microbiology banned him and four co-authors from its journals for a year for “data distortion” after a reviewer spotted numbers that were identical but shouldn’t have been. being, in two versions of a submitted manuscript. (Raoult objected to the ban, saying he was not at fault.) And some scholars have noticed that Raoult was on a third of all articles appear in a single journalwhich was made up of some of his collaborators.
Last year, Raoult’s team made a correction to a 2018 studyand another from 2013 was fully retracted (the newspaper specifies that Raoult was not reachable when making his decision). Both contained apparently duplicate or otherwise suspicious images, first spotted by Bik, who flagged more than 60 others of his studies on PubPeer for potential issues.
And by July last year, his most infamous study had been scrutinized by even more outside experts commissioned by the journal’s editors. The scientists did not hold back. “Gross methodological shortcomings”, “non-informative” and “totally irresponsible” we said. Another group said this “raised a lot of attention and contributed to a demand for the drug without the proper evidence”.
Despite acknowledging these flaws, leaders of the International Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, which publishes the journal with Elsevier, chose not to withdraw the study. “We believe that in addition to the importance of sharing observational data at the height of a pandemic, robust public scientific debate on the paper’s findings in an open and transparent manner should be made available,” they said. Around the same time, a group of 500 French infectiologists filed a complaint with local health authorities, accusing Raoult of spread false information about hydroxychloroquine.
Raoult defended his “founding work”, arguing that the call for retraction had “no other justification than the opinion of people fiercely hostile” to hydroxychloroquine. During a hearing in the French Senate in September, he once again played down criticism of his research. Bik had “succeeded in finding 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 “headhunter”, a “girl” who has been “stalking” him since he was “famous”. And around Thanksgiving, biologist Eric Chabrière, a frequent collaborator of Raoult and co-author of the hydroxychloroquine study, tweeted that Bik is “harassing” and “trying to disparage” Raoult.
He cited his past employment at uBiome, a microbiome testing startup that the FBI raided in 2019. (Bik, who was scientific editorial director there until late 2018, said that she was never interviewed and was not involved in the founding alleged scheme to defraud insurers and investors.) Chabrière also accused her of being paid by the pharmaceutical industry.
“I’m not sponsored by any company, but you can sponsor me on @Patreon,” Bik tweeted, linking to his account. As she explained to Chabrière, she is also a consultant to universities and publishers who wish to investigate suspicious articles.
“Happy to investigate all your institute papers, too, as long as you pay me :-),” she added.
During the following months, Chabrière would treat her as a “real dung beetle”, “a mercenary who only obeys money” and a person “paid to attack and discredit certain targets”. His supporters crowded together, sometimes with vague threats. Meanwhile, Raoult called her a “crazy woman” and a “failed researcher” of “average intelligence”.
Then, on April 30 this year, Chabrière tweeted a screenshot of a legal complaint that was allegedly filed with a prosecutor in France. He accused her and PubPeer co-organizer Barbour of “moral harassment”, “attempted blackmail” and “attempted extortion”. His home address was listed. The tweet was later deleted.