At least five hundred scientists have expressed their support for the Dutch microbiologist and science fraud sleuth Elisabeth Bik in an open letter. She is being charged in France by controversial microbiologist Didier Raoult for intimidation and extortion after she has found abuses in more than 60 investigations of him. The signatories call for better protection of scientific whistleblowers such as Bik. A similar petition from citizen4science, a citizens’ initiative against misinformation and populism, has already been signed more than 1,800 times.
The stone in the pond is Bik’s criticism of a March 2020 study in which Raoult claims the drug hydroxychloroquine is effective against Covid-19. Bik noted, among other things, that the research method is rattling, that there was no ethical permission while the study was already running, and that just six patients who received the drug were excluded from the study, including four who were in the ICU or who died. Since then, Raoult and his supporters have constantly attacked her personally on Twitter and in the media. Raoult, founder and director of the IHU Méditerranée Infection institute in Marseille, has been summoned in France by a disciplinary committee to answer for the continued promotion of hydroxychloroquine as a drug against Covid-19. Various studies (by other scientists) show that the drug has little or no effect against illness or death from Covid-19.
Bik searches for errors and abuses in scientific publications. She does this on behalf of scientific institutes, or she writes about it on Twitter, on her own blog and on PubPeer, an independent website where scientists can discuss each other’s work.
I am more aware that anything I write can be taken out of context
“The charges include harassment, extortion and blackmail,” she told Skype from her home in California. Interestingly, it is not ‘slander’, that would be more obvious. The attorney is now going to see if there is enough evidence. That can take months. ”
Extortion and blackmail?
“I suspect that’s because of two tweets I wrote in response to Eric Chabrière, a scientist who works for Raoult. He is constantly bothering me on Twitter with questions about who pays me. He insinuates that I get paid by the pharmaceutical industry. I replied that it is not, and I provided a link to my Patreon account, where people can give a small amount to support artists or others. He now plays it as if I said: pay me, otherwise I will research your papers. I did not.
“A second time I wrote, sarcastically, that I would also like to check his papers, if he would pay me, with a smiley on the side. But that is not extortion either, it would be if he had to pay me not to check his papers. ”
What do you think of the statement of support?
“I’m very happy with it. I felt very alone in my struggle. Since those tweets from Chabrière I have been getting a continuous stream of nasty tweets. That is not nice. Especially not if a tweet from him gets 200 likes, and with my more than 97,000 followers, I only get two. At one point I even had my doubts. Am I not completely wrong? Do I have to accept that powerful men like Raoult can get away with a lot of things and publish their own research in their self-founded journals?
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“They could have put all that energy into answering the issues on Pubpeer. Please send the original chart showing that I am wrong or proof that the ethical clearance has been obtained. But Raoult did not comment on any of the 254 comments on his papers on Pubpeer. Mind you, only 63 of them are mine. That gives the impression that they have no arguments and that I am right. ”
Do you also think three times before you fillet a piece?
“No. I formulate more carefully on Pubpeer and in tweets, I express myself less sarcastically. I am more aware that anything I write can be taken out of context by a troll. For example, I try not to like tweets in which people say that Raoult is a madman who should be fired. If you have a large Twitter account, then you have to behave a bit nicer, I now realize. But I will not stop, I will continue to look for abuses in scientific research. ”
Why is that detective work important?
“The consequences of poor research can be serious. Many people wanted to use the drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure after then President Trump tweeted that it was a gamechanger used to be. You may wonder if additional people have died because they were treated with that drug. And people with the autoimmune disease SLE, who also use the drug, could not get it for a while because it was deficient. It is now clear that the drug does not work against Covid-19. But people are still treated with it. ”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 25 May 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of May 25, 2021