Opinion | MTL, step aside until the investigation concludes

Opinion by Soham Sinha
Dec. 8, 2022, 9:36 p.m.

Like many of you, I have been following The Daily’s reporting of the research misconduct allegations against MTL. It’s been a unique experience seeing this firsthand as a Ph.D. student and subsequent discussions with my friends and peers all point to something — it’s not so much the manipulated images that trouble us, it’s the question of why there were any manipulated images to begin with.

In scientific research in the U.S., the role of the Principal Investigator or PI is mainly to secure and administrate funding for their research ideas in the forms of grants, fellowships, awards, etc. The main day-to-day research is carried out by a combination of graduate students, postdocs, research scientists and undergraduates. This is not to say that PIs do not engage in the laboratory at all; they actively do by guiding students through obstacles, generating new ideas and helping in the experiments themselves. Besides setting the direction of the lab, they are responsible for setting expectations for the lab — more specifically, the environment in which researchers operate.

This leads to an implicit trust contract; the PI trusts the researcher to carry out their vision, and the researcher trusts the PI in their decisions regarding the researchers themselves. That trust carries over to data generation; it is expected that the data generated is the responsibility of the researcher themselves and is not manipulated nor misleading. Based on this contract and my own experience as a researcher, I doubt that MTL has had a direct hand in manipulating the images/figures in the papers.

However, research groups should have an environment that leads to the free-flow exchange of ideas and data — an environment determined by the PI. Data by itself is neutral; some data may show that the hypothesis is plausible; some data may cause entire ideas to disintegrate; most data prompts changes in research direction. But this data should be freely available and debatable across members of a research team. So my question is: what kind of environment led to researchers publishing potentially misleading data?

Was it a results-based environment where there was pressure to generate positive results? Was it an environment where there was a significant breakdown of communication between members of the research team? Was it an environment that resulted from ethical negligence from the PI?

So my question to MTL is — what kind of environment were you leading where many papers of which you were a co-author ended up with doctored images? Were you honestly doing the best you could to protect the integrity of your research group? And even if you weren’t directly involved in the research that produced the images as you stated in your letter, shouldn’t you have exercised due diligence on the results presented?

I agree that any research misconduct will be hard to prove given that the papers were published close to two decades ago, so much of the original data would be destroyed or hard to find. Research itself is a stressful endeavor, and even with a PI’s best intentions, members of their team can have lapses of judgment. However, make no mistake, research misconduct has harmful consequences to the field of science as a whole. It undermines public trust, leads to false directions of new research and wastes human and financial resources.

That being said, mistakes are normal in the manuscript writing process; typos, incorrect graph labels and references do sometimes manage to escape the peer-review and editing process despite best intentions. Currently, MTL has at least eight papers under scrutiny — one or two is a mistake, three to four is a problem, and at eight it starts to look intentional (keeping in mind that it may not be as pervasive as some have suggested). Furthermore, these aren’t just any mistakes, these are allegations of image manipulation.

MTL and the University have consistently made the defense that such “mistakes” don’t harm the overall results of the paper or that he had no involvement with the doctored images.  These myriad ways of shirking responsibility essentially add up to the “I am only human” excuse.

But MTL does not get to use that excuse; he is the president of Stanford University. He is the face of our University; he not only represents our faculty, students and staff, but he also represents the research and output of the University. He is our leader, and even if he wasn’t democratically elected, he is supposed to represent the best of us — his impressive resume gave credence to that appointment.

We hold leaders to higher standards because we trust that they will make the best decisions for us. We trust that when they bleed, they bleed for us; when they cry, they cry for us; and when they speak, they speak for us. In Lance Armstrong’s infamous doping case, the cyclist was specifically targeted by the USADA not just because of his illegal performance enhancement, but because he was a leader: the public face of cycling who improperly used his influence to intimidate other cyclists who spoke up about Armstrong’s PED use.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that you weren’t directly involved in the data manipulation. However, as a leader, you need to step down or step aside for the time being. Right now, you no longer represent the best of us — because ultimately, in each of these papers that have been identified, you were a leader on that research team and ultimately responsible. You should have been in charge of making sure that the work that bore your name was held to the highest integrity. As a PI, you were in charge of ensuring a positive and honest environment in your laboratories. Instead, those environments may have become negligent — or, at worst, intentionally harmful.

When you were chosen to be president, you made a statement in your inaugural address: “Let us commit to being a purposeful university.” You defined a purposeful university as one that is fearless, promoting and celebrating excellence and boldly advancing the good of humanity. I ask you — are you truly living up to your ideal of being a purposeful leader?  Are you truly reflecting the excellence outlined in your speech? Are you truly fearless?

If not, MTL, please step aside or step down until the investigation concludes — because that is the right thing to do.

Soham Sinha is a doctoral student in Bioengineering, where he focuses on at scale 3D bioprinting of viable cardiac tissue for therapeutics. Contact him at opinions 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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