Elsevier reopens investigation into controversial hydroxychloroquine-COVID paper

Didier Raoult

A March 2020 paper that helped spur the discredited claim hydroxychloroquine could treat COVID-19 is under investigation – again – after some of its authors asked to take their names off the article. 

The lead author, retired researcher Didier Raoult, has 12 retractions, according to The Retraction Watch Database. Those retractions involved violations of ethics rules. Journals are investigating many other articles by Raoult and his colleagues, including their work on hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID. 

The paper, “Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a treatment of COVID-19: results of an open-label non-randomized clinical trial,” was published in the International Journal for Antimicrobial Agents. It has been cited more than 3,000 times, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science. 

Soon after publication, critics pointed out flaws in the article. The journal commissioned a review, in which Frits Rosendaal, of Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands, called the researchers “fully irresponsible” for presenting flawed information “coupled with the potentially serious side-effects of hydroxychloroquine.” In an official statement, The International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy (ISAC), which co-owns the journal with Elsevier, said in April 2020 that the article “does not meet the Society’s expected standard.” 

Still, the journal did not retract the paper. In an editorial published along with the critical reviews, ISAC leadership wrote: 

We believe, in addition to the importance of sharing observational data at the height of a pandemic, a robust public scientific debate about the paper’s findings in an open and transparent fashion should be made available.

A group of scientists again called for its retraction in a June 3 email sent to Elsevier and seen by Retraction Watch. Despite ISAC’s April 2020 statement of concern, “nothing happened during the last four years, which seems unusually long to us,” the scientists wrote. In addition, three of the authors told the group they had asked for their names to be removed from the paper at the end of 2023, the group wrote. 

A representative from Elsevier responded to the group’s email three days later, confirming three of the authors had asked to take their names off the paper “on the grounds of their having concerns about the article of a methodological nature.” The representative told us they “can’t divulge” which authors made the request, or when they did so. 

The representative also stated that the journal was re-opening the previously closed investigation after receiving the authors’ requests. 

Raoult has not responded to our emails seeking comment. 

Fabrice Frank, one of the email’s authors and retired independent researcher, told us at least two of the authors had been added “without their consent and without knowing it.” The authors asked to remain anonymous. 

Lonni Besançon, a researcher at Linköping University in Linköping, Sweden, called the fact the article remains available “unacceptable,” adding: “All of the concerns were raised years ago and the paper is clearly responsible” for a waste of scientific efforts, money, and time. 

Besançon and Frank have raised concerns about other papers by authors affiliated with the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Infection (IHU-MI) in Marseille, France, where Raoult was the former director. Nearly all of the authors of the March 2020 paper have ties to IHU-MI.

Elsevier is investigating some of these claims, and has issued more than 100 expressions of concern.

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2 thoughts on “Elsevier reopens investigation into controversial hydroxychloroquine-COVID paper”

  1. ” . . . after some of its authors asked to take their names off the article.”

    ” . . . confirming three of the authors had asked to take their names off the paper “on the grounds of their having concerns about the article of a methodological nature.””

    Well, to me it’s obvious these three unnamed authors didn’t have any concerns about the article of a “methodological nature” when they voluntarily put their names on the paper so why should they be allowed to remove their names now that there seems to be serious questions and issues with the paper. If they’re willing to take the credit then they should be willing to take the blame too and Elsevier should deny their request.

    1. From the article, quoting one of the whistleblowers, its seems that at least two of the authors were included “without their consent and without knowing it.” If true that gives them ample ground to demand its retraction. I’d guess that the publisher asked the corresponding authors to provide documentation (e.g. though copies of e-mails) that all co-authors were at least aware of the paper and that they did not.

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