Renowned neuroscientist Marc Tessier Lavigne announced Wednesday that he is stepping down as president of Stanford University, after an external review of his scientific work found error in several high-profile journal articles published within his remit.
The review committee has drafted a response to allegations that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne engaged in scientific misconduct. Five well-known biologists and neuroscientists were on the panel, including Randy Chicman, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and Shirley Tilghman, who served as president of Princeton University from 2001 to 2013. In its report, which focused on 12 academic papers, the panel said there was no evidence that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had publicly concealed such fraudulent information.
But the panel noted, “Many members of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s laboratories over the years appear to have tampered with research data and/or fallen short of accepted scientific practices,” noting multiple errors in the five papers that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne led or supervised. In response, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne undertook to withdraw three of the five articles, order major corrections to two, and relinquish his position as president.
“I am pleased that the committee concluded that I did not engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data,” Dr. Tessier Lavigne said in a statement, adding, “Although I was not aware of these problems, I want to be clear that I take responsibility for the work of members of my laboratory.”
What are the allegations?
In 2015, several concerns were raised on PubPeer regarding image data published in three papers – one in Cell in 1999 and two in Science in 2001 – in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne served as lead author. Concerns varied, citing what appeared to be digital editing and manipulation of image backgrounds, the duplication of certain images, and the creation of photomontages that obscured the purity of scientific data.
These concerns were revisited in 2022 by several media outlets, including Stanford’s student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, which has cast more scrutiny on Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s research. The outlets drew attention to images in more than a dozen different papers that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne worked on. Although some of the images had little effect on the results of the studies, others seem to have substantially the findings.
As a result, the Stanford University Board of Trustees opened an investigation into the scientific work of Dr. Tessier Lavigne and organized a five-member expert panel to review the allegations.
In early 2023, The Stanford Daily published More allegations That in 2009, when Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was working as an executive at the biotechnology company Genentech, he published a paper in the journal Nature containing falsified data. Relying on unnamed sources, the student paper suggested that a research review panel conducted an internal Genentech investigation of the 2009 paper and found evidence of data fraud. The Stanford Daily also suggested that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was made aware of these cases but prevented her from releasing them to the public.
Dr. Tessier-Lavin strongly denied the allegations.
Was there fraud?
After meeting 50 times and collecting 50,000 documents, the five-member panel of experts released its findings on Wednesday. It concluded that although there was image manipulation and evidence of systemic neglect in each of the papers examined, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not participate in any of this himself nor did he “knowingly induce others to do so”.
He was also cleared of the most serious allegation: data fraud in his 2009 Nature article. The committee noted that the research “lacks the rigor expected for a paper of this possible outcome” and decided that Dr. Tessier Lavigne could have been more forthcoming about the paper’s shortcomings, but concluded that the allegations of fraud were false.
In the paper, the researchers claimed to have found a chain reaction of brain proteins, including a protein called Death Receptor 6, that contributed to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. If the research stalls, it promises to provide a new way to better understand and treat the disease.
“There was some excitement because this could have been an alternative way of thinking about the disease,” said Dr. Matthew Schrag, a Vanderbilt University neurologist.
However, further research – published by the lab of Dr. Tessier Lavigne – found that experiments highlighting the role of DR6 chain reaction in Alzheimer’s disease did not substantiate what is claimed. This was true, in part, due to unexpected side effects of the inhibitors that were used in the experiments, as well as impurities in the proteins that were used.
The expert group suggested that instead of publishing more articles refuting the findings of the 2009 research, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne could have issued an outright correction or retraction. But the report determined that the allegations of fraud, first reported in the Stanford Daily based on testimony from largely unnamed sources (some of which the panel was unable to identify), had merged an unrelated case of scientific misconduct in Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s lab with the 2009 paper.
Dr Schrag, who found seemingly duplicate images in a 2009 study and announced it in February, said the study simply wasn’t rigorous enough. “The quality of the work was not high,” said Dr. Schrag, stressing that he was talking about himself and not about his university.
What is “image manipulation”?
Of the 12 papers reviewed by the expert panel, it found “manipulation of research data” in almost all of them. According to the report, this manipulation constitutes a range of practices, including digitally altering images, splicing plates, using data from unrelated experiments, duplicating data, and digitally altering the appearance of proteins. But the panel acknowledged that some examples of manipulation may have been unintentional, or may have been an attempt to “beautify” the results.
Mike Rossner, president of biomedical image processing consulting firm Image Data Integrity, said he spent 12 years sifting through manuscripts accepted for publication in The Journal of Cell Biology between 2002 and 2013. He found that about 25 percent of the papers “had some type of manipulation that violated our guidelines and needed to be corrected before publication.” In most cases, he said, the problems were unintentional and did not affect the interpretation of the data. But in about 1 percent of cases, the paper had to be pulled.
“There is a pattern emerging that this is not as rare as we would like to believe it is,” said Dr. Schrag.
Is ‘lab culture’ to blame?
The many cases of image manipulation prompted the expert panel to speak with postdoctoral researchers who worked under Dr. Tessier Lavigne at various times and at various institutions, including Stanford and Genentech.
Many praised Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s intellectual ingenuity and commitment to scientific rigor, but many also described a lab culture that spurred good results and successful experiments. They felt that the lab, and Dr. Tessier Lavigne, “tend to reward ‘winners’ (i.e., postdocs who can produce positive results) and marginalize or marginalize ‘losers’ (i.e., postdocs who have not been able or struggled to generate such data),” the report noted.
The committee decided that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not want this dynamic, but that it may have contributed to the high rate of data manipulation that came out of his laboratories.
Dr. Tessier Lavigne, who will step down as chair on Aug. 31 but will remain a professor of biology at Stanford, said in an email to students: “While I constantly monitor all of the science in my lab, I have always run my lab on trust — trust in my students and postdocs, and trust that the data they were giving me was real and accurate. Moving forward, I will further tighten controls.”