Stanford president resigns over manipulated research, will retract at least three papers

Marc Tessier-Lavigne failed to address manipulated papers, fostered unhealthy lab dynamic, Stanford report says

July 19, 2023, 10:06 a.m.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne will resign effective Aug. 31, according to communications released by the University Wednesday morning. He will also retract or issue lengthy corrections to five widely cited papers for which he was principal author after a Stanford-sponsored investigation found “manipulation of research data.”

According to Jerry Yang, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees, Tessier-Lavigne will step down “in light of the report and its impact on his ability to lead Stanford.” Former Dean of Humanities Richard Saller will serve as interim president. In a separate statement, Tessier-Lavigne defended his reputation but acknowledged that issues with his research, first raised in a Daily investigation last autumn, meant that Stanford requires a president “whose leadership is not hampered by such discussions.”

“At various times when concerns with Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s papers emerged—in 2001, the early 2010s, 2015-2016, and March 2021—Dr. Tessier-Lavigne failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record,”  Stanford’s report said, identifying a number of apparent manipulations in Tessier-Lavigne’s neuroscientific research.

The report concluded that the fudging of results under Tessier-Lavigne’s purview “spanned labs at three separate institutions.” It identified a culture where Tessier-Lavigne “tended to reward the ‘winners’ (that is, postdocs who could generate favorable results) and marginalize or diminish the ‘losers’ (that is, postdocs who were unable or struggled to generate such data).”

The report concluded there was no evidence that Tessier-Lavigne himself manipulated data in the papers reviewed, nor that he knew about manipulation at the time. But the report noted Tessier-Lavigne “has not been able to provide an adequate explanation” for why he did not correct the scientific record when presented the opportunity on multiple occasions. 

“I am gratified that the Panel concluded I did not engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data,” Tessier-Lavigne said in a written statement. He acknowledged that “the report identified some areas where I should have done better, and I accept the report’s conclusions.” 

The report identified “repeated instances of manipulation of research data and/or subpar scientific practices from different people and in labs run by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne at different institutions.”

Retracting a paper is a rare act, especially for a scientist of Tessier-Lavigne’s stature. A database of retractions shows that only four in every 10,000 papers are retracted. The move is saved for when there is “clear evidence that the findings are unreliable,” according to guidelines from the nonprofit Committee on Publication Ethics. Tessier-Lavigne had claimed repeatedly last autumn that the issues in his studies “do not affect the data, results or interpretation of the papers.”

For several papers worthy of retraction to have been principally authored by the same scientist represents “unusual frequency of manipulation of research data and/or substandard scientific practices,” the investigation concluded. Tessier-Lavigne is expected to retract or issue robust corrections to at least five papers in response to concerns he had not addressed for years, including a widely publicized study that he once claimed “turn[s] our current understanding of Alzheimer’s on its head.”

Stanford’s report, released in a 95-page document Wednesday morning, is the work of Mark Filip, a former deputy attorney general contracted by a special committee of the Stanford Board of Trustees to review allegations first identified in Daily reporting last November. Filip drafted several high-profile scientists, including Nobel laureate Randy Schekman, former Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, former Harvard provost Steve Hyman and two other members of the National Academies.

The investigation took eight months, with one member stepping off after The Daily revealed that he maintained an $18 million investment in a biotech company Tessier-Lavigne cofounded. Reporting by The Daily this week shows that some witnesses to an alleged incident of fraud during Tessier-Lavigne’s time at the biotechnology company Genentech refused to cooperate because investigators would not guarantee them anonymity, even though they were bound by nondisclosure agreements.

Not guaranteeing anonymity in an investigation of this importance is an “extremely unusual move” that could hamper access to key witnesses, said Jeffrey Flier, who ran a number of research misconduct inquiries in his time as Dean of Harvard Medical School. 

In the report, the scientific panel raised questions about allegations of fraud in a major 2009 Alzheimer’s study that claimed to have found the cause of neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s patients and was publicly called “the most important discovery in Alzheimer’s in the last 20 years, maybe ever” by former Genentech executive Richard Scheller. 

While the report found the central conclusions of the paper to be incorrect and said the quality of the research in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab “fell below accepted scientific practices,” the panel also said it “believes that the mistaken narrative of fraud in certain reporting may stem from a conflation of various events.” The report raised the possibility that allegations were confused with a separate 2010 incident of fraud in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab.

The 2010 incident involved a group of lab members reporting their suspicions about a coworker in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab, leading to the termination of a postdoc and the withdrawal of an already-submitted manuscript with Tessier-Lavigne listed as principal author, according to the report.

However, potential witnesses — who include five high-level executives and scientists at Genentech — have alleged in previous reporting by The Daily that there was indeed fraud in the 2009 paper and that Tessier-Lavigne was made aware in 2011 that scientists within Genentech had attempted to reproduce the findings and concluded its findings to be invalid. Tessier-Lavigne has denied this characterization and Genentech has contested the executives’ and scientists’ version of events. Each executive and scientist had spoken with The Daily about two separate instances in Tessier-Lavigne’s lab — the two the report suggested had been confused. Four of those people also spoke about a third instance of alleged fraud that they said resulted in another scientist under Tessier-Lavigne’s lab leaving the company.

The Stanford investigators were informed of this third alleged incident in a February email obtained by The Daily. The third allegation does not appear in the report, and witnesses with relevant knowledge about what happened say they were not asked about it during interviews.

Instead, the investigation concluded that the allegations of fabrication of data in the 2009 paper “are not accurate.” Tessier-Lavigne said “the report clearly refutes the allegations of fraud and misconduct that were made against me.”

One person with direct knowledge of the incidents at Genentech told The Daily Wednesday, “I did not confuse these two incidents.” The person said they told the Stanford committee about both. They told The Daily they were glad more details about Tessier-Lavigne’s lab continued to emerge.

None of the high-profile scientists on the committee would answer questions about their work or the decision not to guarantee anonymity. Filip and Aidan Ryan, an Edelman senior vice president for crisis communications serving as the spokesperson for the investigation, answered questions on background.

While the report said it had not found evidence of fraud in the 2009 paper, the panel concluded that the research that went into it “fell below accepted scientific practices, let alone Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s self-described standard of scientific excellence” and that the paper ought to be retracted or face “a comprehensive and robust set of corrections.”

The report’s finding was a rebuke of Tessier-Lavigne’s public defense. His lawyer Stephen Neal, chair emeritus of Cooley, had written on Tessier-Lavigne’s behalf in a letter to The Daily last February that “a correction or retraction of those findings would have been unwarranted and inappropriate.”

The report confirmed many details previously reported by The Daily and broke new ground in other areas.

“Within weeks after the publication of” a 2001 article in the journal Science now thought to contain doctored imagery, the report said, a colleague in the field identified an error. “Dr. Tessier-Lavigne stated to the colleague in writing that he would take corrective action, including both contacting the journal and attempting to issue a correction…. He did not contact the journal and he did not attempt to issue an erratum, which is inadequate.”

The report noted that Tessier-Lavigne had not followed up for seven years on unpublished corrections to two of his papers in Science, concluding that “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. “To date, the scientific record remains uncorrected.”

The report noted that explanations made by Tessier-Lavigne in correspondence with editors at the journal Nature over manipulated research data in a 2004 paper were “not fully responsive to the range of publicly expressed concerns given the available forensic evidence.” Since then, Tessier-Lavigne “has acknowledged the presence of manipulation of research data,” and assented to a correction after the panel concluded it was “required and appropriate for the paper.”

Filip, who led the review, said in an interview that more investigations could come out of the board’s report. 

Theo Baker is the Vol. 263 Spotlight Investigations Editor. A frosh from Washington, D.C., he is the youngest ever recipient of a George Polk Award. Contact [email protected] for encrypted email. Find him on Twitter @tab_delete.

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