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Stanford President’s Past Research Under Investigation

The university’s board of trustees will oversee a probe after allegations of errors and manipulated images in four papers Marc Tessier-Lavigne coauthored. 

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Katherine Irving

Katherine Irving is an intern at The Scientist. She studied creative writing, biology, and geology at Macalester College, where she honed her skills in journalism and podcast production and conducted research on dinosaur bones in Montana. Her work has previously been featured in Science.

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Update (December 9): The Stanford board of trustees has brought on external counsel to lead the review of university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s research, according to a statement this week (December 7).

The European Molecular Biology Organization Journal is reviewing a study coauthored by Stanford University president and neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, The Stanford Daily reported yesterday (November 29). The university’s board of trustees will also oversee an investigation into papers he’s coauthored that allegedly contain multiple manipulated images, a university spokesperson told The Chronicle of Higher Education later the same day.

Scientists have previously voiced concerns about several of Tessier-Lavigne’s papers on the website PubPeer. The flagged papers date back as far as 2001, and posts about potential errors in papers on which he is a coauthor go back at least seven years. Prominent scientific misconduct investigator Elisabeth Bik tells the Daily that the four papers of Tessier-Lavigne’s that she reviewed at the publication’s request—including the one under investigation by The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Journal—contain “serious problems.” Of the other three, one, on which Tessier-Lavigne was a middle author, was published in Nature, and two, on which he is listed as the senior author, were published in Science. Two other misconduct experts independently corroborated her assessment in interviews with the Daily.

“One cannot really say that all the problems that we found are pointing towards misconduct—but there definitely are some problems, and they’re real,” Bik tells The Mercury News.

Stanford University spokesperson Dee Mostofi tells the Chronicle in an email that the university will “assess the allegations presented in The Stanford Daily, consistent with its normal rigorous approach by which allegations of research misconduct are reviewed and investigated.” She adds that Tessier-Lavigne would not be involved in the board of trustees’ oversight on the papers’ review, even though the university's president is a member of the board. In a previous email to the Chronicle, Mostofi wrote that Tessier-Lavigne “was not involved in any way in the generation or presentation of the panels that have been queried” in two papers he was less involved in, including the EMBO paper; in a statement to the Daily, Mostofi wrote that Tessier-Lavigne was only cited on the EMBO paper to “recognize his contribution in providing necessary reagents for the research by other authors.” Mostofi also wrote to the Daily that the issues in the two flagged papers in which Tessier-Lavigne was more involved “do not affect the data, results, or interpretation of the papers.” Bik disagrees with this statement, telling the Daily that there were many mistakes and that some of the image duplications flagged “are suggestive (of) an intention to mislead.”

Tessier-Lavigne, a prominent Canadian neuroscientist who has done research both in academia and with biotechnology company Genentech, responded to the allegations in a statement provided to the Chronicle on Tuesday night. “Scientific integrity is of the utmost importance both to the university and to me personally,” he writes. “I support this process and will fully cooperate with it, and I appreciate the oversight by the Board of Trustees.”

Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, writes in an email to the Daily that he would look into the allegations about the Science paper. The four papers called into question are some of Tessier-Lavigne’s most cited work in neurobiology, the Daily reports, and have tens of thousands of combined downloads.

“Somebody needs to investigate who was making these figures or making these errors,” Bik tells the Chronicle. “It might not be him, but his name is on the papers.”

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