An independent researcher who pointed out possible issues in more than 60 studies by microbiologist Didier Raoult of Aix-Marseille Université faces a legal complaint alleging harassment and blackmail, The Guardian reported May 22. An open letter by academics supporting Bik, who has also been the subject of insults and Twitter harassment over her criticism of the studies, has more than 1,000 signatures so far. Bik is also mentioned in a separate petition supporting “defenders of scientific integrity.”
“We also want citizens and scientists who might try to sue whistleblowers to understand that it’s not a legal concern but a scientific one,” Lonni Besançon, an author of the open letter and a postdoc at Monash University in Australia who has also raised concerns about Raoult’s work, tells The Guardian. “Dr Bik is an amazing scientist and we want to make sure that no dangerous precedent is set with the current legal situation around her.”
See “Eye for Manipulation: A Profile of Elisabeth Bik”
Bik, a consultant with a background in microbiology who regularly points out apparent image manipulation in published studies, first critiqued Raoult’s work in a blog entry she posted about a high-profile study in which Raoult and his colleagues reported positive results from treating COVID-19 patients with the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine. The study sparked enthusiasm about the drug from then-President Donald Trump and others, but Bik’s blog cited “serious problems” with it, including that the control and treatment groups were different in ways that she argued could introduce confounding factors. The publisher of the study later expressed concern about it.
Bik went on to analyze Raoult’s past work—some of it, like the hydroxychloroquine study, conducted with coauthor Eric Chabrière of the IHU – Méditerranée Infection in Marseille—and posted comments on more than 60 of his studies on the website PubPeer pointing out duplicate images and ethical issues, according to The Guardian.
Raoult and Chabrière responded by publicly insulting Bik, multiple outlets report, and in late April, Chabrière tweeted an image, since deleted, of a legal complaint against her that accused her of harassment and blackmail and included her home address. The complaint also names Boris Barbour, a neuroscientist who helps run PubPeer. Raoult’s lawyer has said that the many automated notifications of PubPeer comments constituted harassment, Science reports, and that the blackmail accusation refers to a Twitter exchange in which Chabrière asked Bik whether she had financial ties to pharmaceutical companies, and Bik responded by linking to the Patreon account where she receives donations and offering—jokingly, she says—to investigate IHU’s studies for a fee.
The episode is “bringing to science what has already been brought to lots of other areas—doxxing, threats, and intimidation,” Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, tells Science. “Science has fared better in that respect for a while, but now we’re seeing it.”
“Unfortunately, this is nothing new,” Lex Bouter, a research integrity scholar at Vrije University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, tells Nature. “Whistle-blowing is risky and can lead to real damage to the whistle-blower.”
A spokesperson for PubPeer tells Nature that “successful legal action could have a chilling effect on post-publication peer review,” and that this is the first time “direct legal action against the site” has been initiated (though it has in the past been the subject of a subpoena for the identities of commenters, and has received threats of legal action). It is not clear whether anything will come of the legal complaint; Bik tells outlets that she hasn’t been directly notified of it.
Bik tells Nature that Raoult has not responded to the specific concerns she has raised. “Why doesn’t he show me proof that I am wrong? I would be happy to accept that,” she says. “Science should be discussed in the scientific arena, not the legal one.”