Didier Raoult, the French scientist who became well-known for his controversial stance on hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19, has featured on this blog before (see here, here, and here). Less well-known is the fact that he has attracted controversy before. In 2006, Raoult and 4 co-authors were banned for one year from publishing in the journals of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), after a reviewer for Infection and Immunity discovered that four figures from the revised manuscript of a paper about a mouse model for typhus were identical to figures from the originally submitted manuscript, even though they were supposed to represent a different experiment. In response, Raoult “resigned from the editorial board of two other ASM journals, canceled his membership in the American Academy of Microbiology, ASM’s honorific leadership group, and banned his lab from submitting to ASM journals”. In response to Science covering the story in 2012, he stated that, “I did not manage the paper and did not even check the last version”. The paper was subsequently published in a different journal.
Now, the publisher PLOS is marking nearly 50 articles by Didier Raoult, with expressions of concern while it investigates potential research ethics violations in the work. PLOS has been looking into more than 100 articles by Raoult and determined that the issues in 49 of the papers, including reuse of ethics approval reference numbers, warrant expressions of concern while the publisher continues its inquiry.
In August of 2021, Elisabeth Bik wrote on her blog about a series of 17 articles from IHU-Méditerranée Infection that described different studies involving homeless people in Marseille over a decade, but all listed the same institutional ethics approval number. Bik and other commenters on PubPeer have identified ethical concerns in many other papers, including others in large groups of papers with the same ethical approval numbers. Subsequently, Bik has received harassment and legal threats from Raoult.
David Knutson, senior manager of communications for PLOS, sent ‘Retraction Watch’ this statement:
PLOS is issuing interim Expressions of Concerns for 49 articles that are linked to researchers affiliated with IHU-Méditerranée Infection (Marseille, France) and/or the Aix-Marseille University, as part of an ongoing case that involves more than 100 articles in total. Many of the papers in this case include controversial scientist Didier Raoult as a co-author.
Several whistleblowers raised concerns about articles from this institute, including that several ethics approval reference numbers have been reused in many articles. Our investigation, which has been ongoing for more than a year, confirmed ethics approval reuse and also uncovered other issues including:
- highly prolific authorship (a rate that would equate to nearly 1 article every 3 days for one or more individuals), which calls into question whether PLOS’ authorship criteria have been met
- undeclared COIs with pharmaceutical companies
To date, PLOS has completed a detailed initial assessment of 108 articles in total and concluded that 49 warrant an interim Expression of Concern due to the nature of the concerns identified. We’ll be following up with the authors of all articles of concern in accordance with COPE guidance and PLOS policies, but we anticipate it will require at least another year to complete this work.
Raoult is a coauthor on 48 of the 49 papers in question. This summer, Raoult retired as director of IHU-Méditerranée Infection, the hospital and research institution in Marseille that he had overseen since 2011, following an inspection by the French National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) that found “serious shortcomings and non-compliances with the regulations for research involving the human person” at IHU-Méditerranée Infection and another Marseille hospital. ANSM imposed sanctions on IHU-Méditerranée Infection, including suspending a research study and placing any new research involving people under supervision, and called for a criminal investigation. Other regulators have also urged Marseille’s prosecutor to investigate “serious malfunctions” at the research institution.
Pierre-Edouard Fournier, the new director of IHU-Méditerranée Infection, issued a statement on September 7th that said he had “ensured that all clinical trials in progress relating to research involving the human person (RIPH) were suspended pending the regularization of the situation.” Also in September, the American Society for Microbiology placed expressions of concern on 6 of Raoult’s papers in two of its journals, citing “a ‘scientific misconduct investigation’ by the University of Aix Marseille,” where the researcher also has an affiliation.
Christian Lehman predicted on my blog that ” If Covid19 settles in the long-term, he [Raoult] will not be able to escape a minutely detailed autopsy of his statements and his actions. And the result will be devastating.” It seems he was correct.
What is even more baffling is that Raoult received 13 prestigious awards and honours (see Wikipedia), several while he was already under investigation. The awarding bodies have some explaining to do.
but his last award in 2021 was a ‘Rusty Razor’ for pseudoscience
Also damning is that peer review seems to have failed miserably in many if not all cases. Here are some more examples from Elisabeth Bik’s blog:
Apart from the almost routinely committed ethical transgressions and vague and incomplete data, a majority of these papers were reviewed in just a few days. I understand that peer review normally takes a couple of weeks at least. This is rather suspect.
I’d say that the editors of this particular journal (New Microbes and New Infections) also deserve some investigation …
🤨 Wouldn´t it be more correct to include inverted commas for the word “research” in the headline for this post?!
you might have a point there