Explained | Why has Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the President of Stanford University, resigned?

Marc Tessier-Lavigne speaks to the media at Stanford University in Stanford, February 4, 2016.
| Photo Credit: AP

The president of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned from his post and will be stepping down on August 31 after an investigation found evidence of “manipulation of research data” in widely-cited papers in which he was the principal author. 

According to The Stanford Daily, the university’s news outlet, the investigation found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne failed to correct mistakes in several scientific papers published over the years. The investigation also found that his lab fostered an unhealthy lab dynamic where Dr. Tessier-Lavigne would reward ‘winners’ while marginalising or shunning ‘losers’. 

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne who is a neuroscientist has been the president of Stanford University for the last seven years.

Why the investigation?

The investigation was launched by the Stanford Board of Trustees after an article by the same news outlet reported in November that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s research was under investigation for misconduct. 

After eight months of inquiries, the Scientific Panel constituted by the university’s Board of Trustees special committee released a 95-page report on July 17. The investigation was conducted by Mark Filip, a former deputy attorney general and other well-known scientists such as the Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, former Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, former Harvard provost Steve Hyman and two other members of the National Academies. 

The investigation specifically looked at twelve papers where Dr. Tessier-Lavigne is a co-author which was part of the allegation that emerged for the first time on a website called PubPeer — a crowd-sourced platform where the scientific fraternity discusses issues regarding scientific publications.

The Panel was also charged with looking into any other issues and leads pertaining to the integrity of the scientific process in Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s work. Under this, certain allegations came up against Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s work when he was working as an executive and scientist at Genentech, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company. 

What did the report find?

The report specifically pointed out five papers published over the last two decades where Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was the principal author yet “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.”

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The report concluded that while the results of the research conducted under Dr. Tessier-Lavigne were hedged, the investigators found no evidence that he manipulated the data himself or was aware of manipulation during the review process. 

The fudging of results has not been a lone incident at Stanford University but has “spanned labs at three separate institutions” where Dr. Tessier-Lavigne has worked. 

The report also said that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne “has not been able to provide an adequate explanation” for why he did not correct the mistakes in the papers even when he had multiple opportunities to do so. 

In 2001, a fellow scientist in the field pointed out a possible doctored image in a paper by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne published in the journal Science. According to the report, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne wrote to the colleague that he would contact the journal and issue a correction, however, he did neither.

To date, at least two of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s papers published in Science still contain errors. The report noted that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne has not followed up for seven years on unpublished corrections. “Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not have an explanation for deciding to not follow up on the corrections beyond that he has a practice of drafting many emails to see how they read but only sends a portion of them and that he concluded the communication was unnecessary,” the report said.

A similar incident happened in 2004 when editors of the journal Nature found evidence of manipulated data in a research paper. However, the explanation provided by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was “ not fully responsive to the range of publicly expressed concerns”, the report said. 

Now what?

As a result of the investigation, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne will have to retract three out of five of his research papers and make extensive corrections in the other two. 

One of these papers was a widely-publicised study on Alzheimer’s which claimed to have turned the understanding of the neurodegenerative disease on its head. The report found the central conclusions of the paper to be incorrect and said that the quality of research in Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s lab “fell below accepted scientific practices, let alone Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s self-described standard of scientific excellence.”

The report also said that the panel “believes that mistaken narrative of fraud in certain reporting may stem from a conflation of various events.”

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What did Marc Tessier-Lavigne say?

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne in a statement issued on July 19 against the findings of the report where he said, “I am gratified that the Panel concluded I did not engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data.”

He also said that he has “never submitted a scientific paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately represented.”

Responding to the allegation of not doing enough to correct the mistakes in the research paper, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said that while he took steps in the past to address the issues, in certain cases they have been insufficient.

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne also said that he will be tightening the protocols in place such as systematically matching processed images to the original ones. He will remain at Stanford University as a faculty and keep running his lab.

In the meanwhile, the Board has named Dr Richard Saller, a professor of European Studies and former Dean of Humanities, will serve as interim president starting from September 1.

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