More than 1000 researchers have signed an open letter in support of Elisabeth Bik, a scientific integrity consultant who is being accused of harassment and blackmail by a lawyer representing Didier Raoult, a controversial microbiologist at the Hospital Institute of Marseille (IHU) Mediterranean Infection in France. Last year, Raoult popularized the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Bik, who specializes in identifying manipulated images in scientific papers, has raised concerns about dozens of Raoult’s papers—including ethical, procedural, and methodological problems in a March 2020 paper reporting success in a small hydroxychloroquine trial.
The letter reflects a concern that “legitimate scientific criticism can be squelched by behaviors that go beyond scholarly debate,” says University of Virginia social scientist Brian Nosek, one of its authors. Threats like these are a “substantial threat to science as a social system,” adds Nosek, who has led a push for greater replicability in science.
Raoult’s lawyer told Science he filed a complaint against Bik with the French public prosecutor last month, although Bik has not been notified or charged. She says she has also faced months of harassment on Twitter—from one of Raoult’s colleagues, IHU structural biologist Eric Chabriere, and from anonymous accounts—as a result of her critiques of Raoult’s work. Most of the tweets question whether Bik is being paid by pharmaceutical companies and whether she profited from securities fraud at microbiome testing startup uBiome, where she worked from 2016 to 2018. Other tweets have attacked Bik’s appearance and threatened “justice” in “a real prison” in France. Most frightening, Bik says, has been the doxxing—publication of her home address by both Chabriere and anonymous accounts.
The episode is “bringing to science what has already been brought to lots of other areas—doxxing, threats, and intimidation,” says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “Science has fared better in that respect for a while, but now we’re seeing it.”
In March 2020, Bik blogged about her concerns with Raoult’s widely publicized paper about hydroxychloroquine, which has been promoted as a cure for COVID-19 by a wide cast of characters, including former President Donald Trump, but has failed to show benefits in large, rigorous clinical trials. Bik noted that the clinical trial appeared to have started before ethical approval had been granted; that there were important differences between the treatment and control groups; and that some patients were dropped from the analysis for questionable reasons.
She subsequently read that Raoult and his colleagues had previously been accused of image duplication—a charge he denied, but that resulted in a yearlong ban from publishing in American Society for Microbiology journals. So, Bik set out to look for duplicated images in some of his papers and posted her findings on PubPeer, an online forum for feedback on scientific papers. The slew of insults from Raoult that followed included “witch hunter” on Twitter and “girl/bounty hunter” in a September 2020 hearing in the French Senate on the country’s pandemic policy, including its use of hydroxychloroquine in the COVID-19 pandemic. The insults were “sort of understandable,” Bik says. “I critique his paper; he can call me things.”
In that French Senate hearing, Raoult denied ever having committed fraud, but admitted there were errors in a small fraction of his work. PubPeer now has comments on 255 papers on which Raoult is an author. Bik says she has flagged image problems, ethical questions, and other concerns in 63 of the papers.
When a paper is flagged as problematic on PubPeer, the authors are automatically notified. The avalanche of notifications Raoult received constitutes harassment, according to Brice Grazzini, Raoult’s lawyer. Researchers at IHU “have to spend an insane amount of time responding to PubPeer notifications and questions from publishers,” he told the French tabloid France-Soir.
Grazzini added that Bik offered to stop criticizing IHU studies if the institute paid her—a move he says constitutes attempted blackmail. Bik says she jokingly mentioned payment to Chabriere, who began to tweet at and about Bik in September 2020. When he asked her to declare any ties with pharmaceutical companies and explain who paid her for her work, she responded with a link to her Patreon account to clarify that pharmaceutical companies do not pay her, but she does accept fees from universities and scientific publishers to investigate suspicious images. She says she wryly offered to investigate IHU’s papers for a fee.
In April, Chabriere tweeted a screenshot of a document naming Bik and Boris Barbour, a neuroscientist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure’s Institute of Biology who helps run PubPeer, as the subjects of the legal complaint. The tweet—now deleted—included Bik’s full home address and was the first she heard of the legal threat. Raoult and Chabriere did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s not clear whether the French legal system will follow up on the complaint. Bik’s focus on a large number of Raoult’s papers is not evidence of harassment, Rasmussen says. Misconduct investigations sparked by questions about one paper often expand to a researcher’s entire body of work, and Bik was using the appropriate channels to voice her concerns, Rasmussen says. “If she was driving past his house and stalking him, or threatening or writing him personal emails, maybe there would be some basis for harassment.”
In the open letter, Nosek and his cosignatories call on institutions such as universities and funders to protect whistleblowers. But independent contractors like Bik don’t have institutions to protect them, Rasmussen says. “Our system of scientific reliability shouldn’t depend on someone who’s trying to make a living with her various consulting gigs,” she says.
Mike Rossner, a data manipulation consultant, says “people who have the authority to request the source data underlying the published images” should step in to investigate Bik’s concerns. That includes institutional research integrity officers, as well as journal editors.
Bik says this is the first credible legal threat she has faced. “It felt very lonely in the beginning,” she says, but the support from other scientists has changed that. She doesn’t plan to stop investigating errors and misconduct. “I feel it is incredibly important to be able to criticize papers, even after they have been published,” she says. “I don’t see a paper as a pillar of truth.”
The widespread support expressed in the open letter for Bik does not hinge on whether her concerns prove valid, Nosek says, although he thinks many are credible. “Her work is serious and genuine. That does not mean that her work is infallible,” he says. “But it does mean that she should be able to do it without being harassed and maligned beyond normal scholarly debate.”