Stanford President Resigns Because of Concerns Over Research Practices

From a Wall Street Journal story by Melissa Korn headlined “Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne Resigns Over Concerns Over Research Practices”:

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne is resigning, saying the failures highlighted in a recent review by a panel of top scientists could raise questions about his ability to continue leading the school.

The panel, which issued its report Wednesday, found no evidence that Tessier-Lavigne personally engaged in research misconduct, or that he knew of misconduct by others, but determined that data were manipulated in some published scientific papers on which he was a main contributor. The group also said he failed to decisively correct mistakes in published papers as they were uncovered and had lapses in oversight of his labs at multiple institutions.

Stanford launched an investigation into Tessier-Lavigne late last fall, after the student newspaper published an article alleging that images were altered in at least four research papers to which he contributed. The accusations raised concerns about the academic integrity of the leader of one of the world’s most prestigious research institutions. Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, has conducted research focused on degenerative brain diseases and therapies for spinal-cord injuries.

He will step down at the end of August.

“As I have emphatically stated, I have never submitted a scientific paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote in a letter Wednesday announcing his resignation. “I expect there may be ongoing discussion about the report and its conclusions, at least in the near term, which could lead to debate about my ability to lead the University into the new academic year.”

Stanford’s board of trustees convened a special committee in December, which in turn established a panel of scientists in January to assist in the investigation. The investigation was led by Mark Filip, a former federal judge, and a team at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he is a partner.

The five-member scientific panel included renowned neuroscientists, a Nobel laureate and a former Princeton University president. The panel and Kirkland & Ellis reviewed more than 50,000 documents, including lab data and correspondence, received assistance from forensic image analysts and communicated with scientific journals, according to a copy of the report released Wednesday.

The panel ultimately studied 12 published papers. They found that for the seven on which Tessier-Lavigne wasn’t a primary contributor, he didn’t have a material role in preparing the data or resultant images, and wouldn’t have been in a position to catch any misconduct.

However, they said, there were “serious flaws” in how the research data was presented in the five papers on which he was the lead author, and there was evidence of data manipulation by others in at least four of them. Tessier-Lavigne said he would retract three papers, published in the journals Cell and Science in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and issue corrections on the other two, published in Nature in 2004 and 2009.

In December, both Cell and Science issued formal editorial expressions of concern on the papers that are now being retracted, while Nature wrote in March that it was investigating concerns about the 2009 paper. In April, the EMBO Journal, a European scientific publication, retracted some figures and corrected or updated others from a 2008 paper.

Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science, said Tessier-Lavigne asked him Wednesday morning to retract the papers, and the notices of retraction should replace the expressions of editorial concern within the next week or two.

The scientific panel convened by Stanford determined that when concerns about some of the data arose—in 2001, the early 2010s, 2015-2016 and March 2021—Tessier-Lavigne didn’t do enough to correct the record.

Tessier-Lavigne said he notified editors at Cell and Science of errors in the papers in 2015, but the team at Cell determined it didn’t need to publish a correction at the time and Science never published the corrections he provided. He should have pushed harder, the panel said.

“I agree that in some instances I should have been more diligent when seeking corrections, and I regret that I was not,” Tessier-Lavigne said in his letter Wednesday. “The Panel’s review also identified instances of manipulation of research data by others in my lab. Although I was unaware of these issues, I want to be clear that I take responsibility for the work of my lab members.”

The panel concluded that while there were many positive attributes to the culture in Tessier-Lavigne’s research labs, “the unusual frequency of manipulation of research data and/or substandard scientific practices from different people, at different times, and in labs at different institutions, suggests that there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management.”

The Stanford report reflects broad changes as scientists speak out about flaws in published work. Papers are traditionally reviewed by other scientists before they are published in a process called peer review. Now groups such as PubPeer allow scientists to lob public challenges, including demands for retractions and questions about whether lab results can be replicated. Some scientists also use Twitter and other social media to flag potential errors or data manipulation that they spot.

Scientists increasingly work in large teams, dispersed across multiple campuses. The senior researcher pulls together their work and bears the ultimate responsibility for the information being published; scientists say they must put a lot of trust in their collaborators to maintain high standards of research.

“Running a research laboratory is a full-time job,” Thorp said. If someone is also a corporate executive or a top university administrator, “it’s impossible to do a job like that and run your lab in a way that ensures that this kind of thing isn’t going to happen.”

Tessier-Lavigne said he would remain on the Stanford faculty and continue his research on neurodegeneration. Richard Saller, chair of the classics department and former dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, will take over as interim president on Sept. 1.

Tessier-Lavigne has been president of Stanford since 2016. Earlier in his career, he was a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a top science executive at the biotechnology company Genentech and, from 2011 until 2016, president of Rockefeller University in New York.

When asked whether Stanford should have more thoroughly reviewed Tessier-Lavigne’s research record before appointing him president, board spokesman Aidan Ryan said the board followed standard vetting processes available at the time, and acted on new information when it became available last year.

Board Chairman Jerry Yang said the board agreed that Tessier-Lavigne’s decision to resign was in Stanford’s best interests, and thanked him for “his years of outstanding leadership.”

Amy Dockser Marcus contributed to this article.

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