Hydroxychloroquine, Push-Scooters, and
COVID-19: A Journal Gets Stung, and Swiftly Retracts

Retraction Watch Staff

August 18, 2020

This may be the scientific publishing version of "the operation was a success, but the patient died."

The retraction of a Trojan horse paper on the novel coronavirus has called into question the validity of another article in the same journal which found that hydroxychloroquine is effective against Covid-19. 

The sting article, "SARS-CoV-2 was Unexpectedly Deadlier than Push-scooters: Could Hydroxychloroquine be the Unique Solution?"  — was the brainchild of graduate student Mathieu Rebeaud, aka "Willard Oodendijk" and Florian Cova, of "The Institute for Quick and Dirty Science" (no, not really) in Switzerland. Their goal: to highlight a concerning paper in the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health, which they and others suspect of being a predatory publication — one that is happy to take money to publish anything, while pretending to perform peer review.

That paper was a 2020 article titled "Azithromycin and hydroxychloroquine accelerate recovery of outpatients with mild/moderate COVID-19," whose authors included several hydroxychloroquine partisans, among them a member of the French parliament called Martine Wonner.

The paper prompted an outcry on social media, and led to a critical piece in the French press about the dangers of predatory publishing and the concerns about the article. According to the outlet:

Dominique Costagliola, deputy director of the  [Pierre Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health, home to co-author Pierre Levy], had spotted the pre-publication at the beginning of June. According to her, the study contains errors of analysis, raises regulatory questions and sometimes misunderstands the appropriate terms. Finally, only part of the patients in the study were tested for Covid.  "We wrote to the author to chat with him, but he never responded, nor did the head of his hospital department."  Contacted by franceinfo, he points out that the  AJMH , in which this study was published, is absent from one of the (non-exhaustive) lists of predatory journals.

The iPLESP distanced itself from the article:

The management of the IPLESP as well as its supervisory bodies (Inserm, Sorbonne University) and the AP-HP refute the methodology and the conclusions of the manuscript entitled "Azithromycin and Hydroxychloroquine accelerate recovery of outpatients with mild / moderate COVID-19" published in Asian Journal of Medicine and Health and one of the co-authors is affiliated with the research center. This article published in a predatory journal does not allow us to conclude that azithromycin administered alone or with hydroxychloroquine has any favorable impact on the course of the COVID-19 disease. Finally, the regulatory status of the study as described in the paper raises questions and should be clarified.

But the other authors have stood firm. According to Rebeaud:

The goal was indeed to focus attention on predatory journals and also on the scientists using these methods to make the general public believe that their studies are serious because they are published.

Cova added: 

Among the authors were a member of the French parliament, and members of the "Laissons les prescrire" collective – a political association who has been pushing the use of HCQ and the right for doctors to freely prescribe it. Members of the collective (including the member of the parliament) have been brandishing their publication as proof of the efficacy of HCQ, and have argued that the journal it was published in was "as serious as the Lancet".
So, we decided to show that the journal was not that serious and that it would accept anything against money.

To prove their point, they wrote a paper with an author whose name is, literally, "pangolin" — Manis Javanica — Nemo Macron, a thinly veiled reference to France's president, Emmanuel Macron; Otter F. Hantome — "ghost author"; and some inside Gaul jokes. 

Which, to the delight of the authors was accepted and published, and has now earned this notice:

This article was retracted after reporting of serious scientific fraud.

The paper, which is the 32nd one about COVID-19 to be retracted, by our records. has such nuggets as: 

Studies 1 and 2 were conducted in the authors' office chair (Ikea) in France (multicentric), on July 20th, 2020.
Study 2 was excluded from analysis and from this paper, as it did not results (i.e. the results we wanted).

Unfortunately, the peer reviews for the paper — if they in fact exist — are not yet available, according to the journals.

Cova told us that:  

the reaction of the scientific community has been very positive overall, and that's nice (it was also very pleasant to hear that we actually succeeded in making people laugh). We are still waiting for reactions regarding the political side of the affair. Authors of the previous AJMA paper have been quite silent, but papers discussing the hoax are planned to appear in national journals during the week, so we will see.

Rebeaud, aka "Oodendijk," told us:

yes the article deserves to be withdrawn – but it should NEVER have been published in the first place, that's the beauty of the story.

This article originally appeared on Retraction Watch.

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