Stanford President will Step Down after Questions about Research

REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach
Cyclists traverse the main quad on Stanford University’s campus in Stanford, California May 9, 2014. Picture taken May 9, 2014.

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Wednesday he will resign after an investigative report found he had failed to correct mistakes in years-old scientific papers and overseen labs that had an “unusual frequency” of data manipulations.

The dramatic fall from the top of one of the world’s most respected research institutions followed a months-long inquiry prompted by allegations of misconduct reported by a Stanford campus newspaper last year that left Tessier-Lavigne batting away charges that his scholarly work was flawed.

A panel of experts concluded that Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who has been president of Stanford for nearly seven years, did not engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data. It also did not find evidence that he was aware of problems before publication of data.

But the review provides a portrait of a scientist who co-authored papers with “serious flaws” and failed on multiple occasions to “decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes” when concerns were raised. Tessier-Lavigne said Wednesday that he would ask for three papers to be retracted and two corrected.

The investigation raised deeper questions about the prevalence of data manipulation in academic research, the pressure on scholars to deliver blockbuster results and the importance of corrections as new scientific efforts build on previous findings.

“As I have emphatically stated, I have never submitted a scientific paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented. Today’s report supports that statement,” Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement.

But he said he would step down as president effective Aug. 31. “Stanford is greater than any one of us,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote. “It needs a president whose leadership is not hampered by such discussions.”

A panel of prominent scientists, engaged by a special committee of the private university’s board of trustees, examined a dozen of the more than 200 papers published during Tessier-Lavigne’s career. The university released the panel’s 95-page report Wednesday.

Jerry Yang, chair of the Stanford board of trustees, said that Richard Saller, a professor of European studies, would serve as interim president starting Sept. 1. Saller, a former provost at the University of Chicago and former dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Science, will lead the university while the board launches a presidential search.

“Marc is a distinguished and accomplished scientist, and there is no evidence of him engaging in fraud personally,” Yang said in a phone interview Wednesday. “There were certain shortcomings in his lab over the long span uncovered in the process of this review – which was rigorous, thorough and fair. The board accepted his resignation because we agree with Tessier-Lavigne’s conclusion that it’s in the best interests of Stanford, a place he loves and led.”

Tessier-Lavigne, who was named president of Stanford in 2016, is known for research that includes causes of and treatments for neural degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. As president, he launched the university’s first new school in decades, the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, expanded financial aid and shepherded the campus through a pandemic. He will remain at Stanford as a tenured professor in the biology department.

In his statement Wednesday, Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged some missteps: In some instances, he wrote, “I should have been more diligent when seeking corrections. 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 university launched its inquiry in December after the Stanford Daily reported that a prominent research journal, the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal, known as EMBO, was looking into concerns raised about a 2008 paper co-written by Tessier-Lavigne. The Daily reported at the time that there were additional questions about other published research.

Questions had been raised years earlier on an online forum, PubPeer, where people can comment on published research – flagging images or data with questions and concerns – and authors and editors can respond. Some people had questioned whether some papers co-written by Tessier-Lavigne might contain altered images.

A special committee of the university’s board of trustees selected Mark Filip, a former federal judge, and his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to lead the review. It engaged a number of prominent scientists – including a Nobel laureate and a former president of Princeton University – for the review. Hollis Cline, Kafui Dzirasa, Steven Hyman, Randy Schekman and Shirley Tilghman served on the scientific panel.

In February, the Stanford Daily published what was arguably its most serious allegation. As an executive at a biotechnology company, the newspaper reported, Tessier-Lavigne co-authored a paper on Alzheimer’s disease that contained falsified data and allegedly kept the problems “from becoming public.” The article cited “four high-level” employees from the company Genentech, three of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Tessier-Lavigne fired back, describing the report as “replete with falsehoods” and “breathtakingly outrageous.”

The scientific panel reviewing Tessier-Lavigne’s work found that there were problems with the paper, which was published in the journal Nature in 2009. But the report released Wednesday said the allegation of fraud “appears to be mistaken,” citing Genentech’s statement on the matter.

The potentially groundbreaking research published in Nature “lacked the rigor expected for a paper of such potential consequence,” the panel found. The panel said that around the same time as the paper was published, there was a separate, unconnected allegation of fraud in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab. That allegation led to a formal investigation at Genentech, the firing of a postdoctoral student and the preemptive withdrawing of another paper on which Tessier-Lavigne and the postdoc were co-authors.

The panel found that it is “possible, or perhaps even likely” that the postdoc fraud incident, combined with “general frustration” about the irreproducibility of the 2009 paper’s research, was “conflated to produce certain allegations of ‘fraud,’ which are not accurate.”

The scientist panel’s review also looked broadly at Tessier-Lavigne’s management and oversight of scientific laboratories before joining Stanford. It concluded that he “created a laboratory culture with many positive attributes, but 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.”

Elisabeth Bik, a former staff scientist at Stanford doing postdoctoral microbiology research who is now a well-known research integrity consultant, said she thinks it’s good that Tessier-Lavigne is resigning as president.

“I feel that he has failed in his role as supervisor of the lab,” Bik said. “He is stepping down from the university, but I am wondering how he can possibly lead a lab going forward.”

The resignation set off a broad range of reactions from academics, who saw in the controversy larger themes about the pressures of research and the importance of acknowledging mistakes.

Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals – and a former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – wrote Wednesday in the Editor’s Blog that “running a research laboratory is a full-time job and can’t be done effectively when the principal investigator is simultaneously fulfilling a challenging administrative role.”

Thorp previously said that Tessier-Lavigne had contacted Science in 2015 about two articles published in 2001 that he had co-authored. Errata were prepared for both papers relating to images in the articles but were never published, Thorp wrote in a statement last year. He apologized and said the journal would issue updates. On Wednesday, he tweeted that Tessier-Lavigne had contacted the journal to ask for two papers to be retracted, which he said the publication also would have done given the Stanford panel’s findings.

Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that covers scientific integrity, said data manipulation “happens literally thousands of times a year, maybe even more than that.”

“What’s remarkable about the case, of course, is that this is the president of Stanford University,” he said.

Oransky, who teaches medical journalism at New York University, said that the “publish or perish” model of higher education may put pressure on researchers to overstate their findings or even fudge data. There’s a particular premium on publishing in some of the big-name journals such as Science and Nature. “If you don’t publish, if you don’t appear in those journals, someone else will,” Oransky said. “And they will get the grant dollars or the investments or the promotions that you want or that you need in order to maintain your career. And so you do everything you can to get those papers published.”

Matthew Schrag, an assistant professor of neurology with Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said while problems can happen in large, complex labs, people must move quickly to correct the scientific record. The fact that there were multiple instances over the years involving labs tied to Tessier-Lavigne “says something about the culture,” Schrag said.

“It’s a shame – Dr. Tessier-Lavigne has had many major discoveries,” said Schrag, who said he was speaking as an individual. “This represents a relatively small percentage of his research output. That context is also important.”

The reporting by the Stanford Daily marked the second time in recent weeks that investigation by student journalists have led to a dismissal or resignation. This month, Northwestern fired its football coach after the Daily Northwestern reported specific details of hazing that had led to the coach’s suspension.

After months of uncertainty about Tessier-Lavigne’s future as president, some Stanford faculty are looking toward what is on the horizon.

David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature, said the university’s next leader has important work to do. “This has been an incredibly painful experience for all on campus – it has affected everyone in one way or the other,” Palumbo-Liu wrote in an email. “What we need from the new president is not a new capital campaign or ‘vision’; we need a sustained effort to rebuild and maintain trust.”