Optional: Viral Phony Google Doc Shows the Rhetorical Power of Academic Formatting

This morning, the Guardian posted an article explaining the long line of bad science and misinformation that has led tens of thousands of people– including Donald Trump and Elon Musk– to believe that Hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, is 100% effective against COVID-19. (Spoiler: there is currently no scientific evidence that it is effective against COVID-19, although there are many ongoing studies on its effectiveness)

I think this situation is highly instructive about ethos and the many ways academic credibility can be faked/manipulated. As we begin our own research and are going to be discussing APA formatting in detail next week, I think this is very relevant to our coursework.

Essentially, some French researchers published a poorly-designed study (will explain in a footnote later)**, then a lawyer named Gregory Rigano did a lot of things to publicize the drug in the U.S. by misrepresenting both himself and the information. Then, several high-profile people got this information, including Trump and Musk, and they further spread it around.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to summarize the events and then analyze the different ways Rigano used academic writing styles, academic formatting, and academic language to portray himself as a credible source on COVID-19 even though he is not. 

The lesson I want you to take away from this is: Just because something looks fancy and academic, and just because someone has a PhD or the name of a fancy university next to their name, doesn’t mean the source is reliable. But on the flip side, getting good at academic formatting and academic language can help you seem authoritative in your own situations. Please use that power ethically and wisely.

Rigano did several interviews on TV and radio stations, but most importantly, he co-wrote a Google Doc formatted like a scientific paper and released online. Google has taken down the file because it violates their Terms of Service (probably the part saying public documents can’t falsely represent another organization), but you can see an archived version here. I will embed a screenshot of the beginning of the file– red lines are added by me.

Beginning of page previously linked to, with red annotations added by professor

This is not a scholarly source. However, it is designed to LOOK like one.

While it doesn’t have a separate title page like papers in APA and Chicago Style do, the way the title and authors are formatted mimic what a title page looks like. It includes acknowledgements and an abstract (the Summary), as well as a scientific diagram and subheadings.

Other than the fact that both scientists and many news sources have since discredited the paper, its authors, and the claims it makes, here are some clues to how it’s bogus, going in order of my red highlights:

  1. It’s published/distributed on Google Docs. Google Docs is great for writing, but scientific studies get published in scientific journals or released on university websites.
  2. Thomas R. Broker is a real biochemist affiliated with UAB (I looked him up), but when academics list their university affiliations on a publication, they just say where they currently work (or study, in the case of students)– you don’t include where you got your PhD. So the “Stanford PhD” part here is weird.
  3. Rigano’s title, “Esq,” means esquire, used to designate lawyers. He seems to really be a lawyer, but what are his qualifications for writing a biochemical study about viruses? His listed email address is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, but he is not employed there–he’s a student. His LinkedIn profile says he is currently pursuing a master’s degree there but is “on leave.”
  4. “In consultation with” is so vague it could mean just about anything. In fact, Stanford, UAB, and Thomas Broker (the “first author” listed) have all said since this doc was released that they had nothing to do with it and want their names to be removed.
  5. The credits for the translation are also strange– I’ve never heard of an undergraduate student being referred to as a “candidate” before (usually that’s just PhD candidates), and this person is slated to graduate in 2021– they’re a junior in college. So probably they did do the translation, and for all I know they did a good job, but the formatting is designed to lend more ethos to the paper.
  6. The scientific diagram of the molecule is not actually linked to anything in the text– it’s just a decorative image that looks sciencey.

If you continue to read through the archive of the file, there’s lots more reasons to be suspicious– the actual content doesn’t make sense. At the bottom, you’ll also see there are no sources actually cited. The two sections of sources say “More Sources” and “For Informational Purposes Only.” So– the information discussed in the article itself is not actually cited at all. We just get links to related materials.

We also can see that they didn’t follow any sort of normal academic citing protocols. They say, “Due to urgency, certain parts of this publication are taken directly from their attributed source.  Cite them accordingly.” But they don’t say which parts! This is in a gray area of plagiarism. They did acknowledge that some parts of some sections were copy/pasted, but we don’t actually know which parts. 

The lawyer, Rigano, has also gone to some additional lengths to boost his apparent ethos. He is legally the CEO of a “research” company called “Jonas Research,” which was founded in either January or February (unclear) and is filed as an LLC in Albany, NY. There is no information to be found about this company beyond his affiliation with it. They are brand new, and do not appear to be doing research. Yet, he can now truthfully say he’s the CEO of a drug research company.

Fox News falsely credited him as a medical advisor and medical doctor affiliated with Stanford, and he did not correct this characterization. So, he did not claim it directly, but he is now presented that way online.

Furthermore, take a look at the Education section of his LinkedIn profile. His original college degree is in finance, then you see his law degree, and you see his master’s degree-in-progress, but you also see a nonspecific note for “Biochemistry” with the “State University of New York.”

As CUNY students, all of you should know that the CUNY and SUNY systems are just that– systems, not universities themselves. The notes say he has 32 credits in biochemistry classes split across 3 different schools. He says this is a “minor” in parentheses, but it’s impossible to get only a minor– a minor must be connected to a major. So, he’s really saying he has the equivalent coursework of a minor in biochemistry, even though he does not actually have that minor.

But a minor in biochemistry doesn’t really mean you’re qualified to offer definitive proof about cutting edge coronavirus treatments.


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