Row over president’s research consumes Stanford

After claims of image manipulation in papers by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, neuroscientist promises vindication amid signs of faculty unease

March 17, 2023
Stanford University
Source: iStock
Stanford University

A Stanford University review of allegations about research papers authored by the university’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, is stretching through a fourth month with still-mounting allegations, sharpening denials and little idea how long it will distract one of the world’s leading research institutions.

The case began in late November when the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, reported that several scientific papers co-authored by Dr Tessier-Lavigne, a Canadian-born neuroscientist, allegedly contained instances of image manipulation affecting their findings. That touched off an internal review within the university.

The body of papers later expanded to include three additional papers in Science and Cell where Dr Tessier-Lavigne was the senior author, and again more recently with new allegations involving a paper in Nature with implications for treating brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s patients.

Dr Tessier-Lavigne has stayed in the presidency while denying any wrongdoing, and he made a strong response to the most recent set of charges, related to the Nature paper produced in 2009 while he was working at the biotechnology company Genentech.

“Let me reiterate that I am confident a full airing of the facts will vindicate my position,” the president said in the latest in a series of intermittent public statements he has been making about the case.

An official Stanford review of the matter is being conducted by a committee formed by the university’s trustees. The panel has been adding the newly reported allegations to its review, and it can offer no estimate of when it will finish its work, a spokesman said.

One group of seven Stanford professors published a letter in the student newspaper asking the campus community not to rush to judgement, noting the allegations have created a high-stakes case with a complex set of considerations over what responsibilities can be assigned to any one person in the drafting of research articles and the creation of images depicting data findings.

One of the signatories to that letter, William Newsome, a professor of neurobiology, acknowledged hearing “a great deal of private conversation” on campus, with faculty and students “all quite concerned about the allegations”.

But Professor Newsome said he was confident the issue would be resolved through a careful assessment of the facts. “Stanford is strong enough to resist anonymous pressure and make considered decisions on the basis of actual evidence,” he told Times Higher Education. “It is worth taking a few months to get this right.”

The chair of the Stanford faculty senate, Kenneth Schultz, a professor of political science, said he would not discuss a report that several senate colleagues had expressed to him their concern about the ability of Dr Tessier-Lavigne to keep leading Stanford under the circumstances.

One of Stanford's more prominent voices, John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine renowned for his investigations of accuracy in scientific research, offered a mixed assessment. Professor Ioannidis said the new allegations about work at Genentech “are very serious, and totally transparent documentation or rebuttal is needed”. He also expressed disappointment that Dr Tessier-Lavigne had declined requests from The Stanford Daily among others to discuss its findings, and that the university had failed to congratulate a student newspaper reporter, Theo Baker, after he won a prestigious George Polk Award for his investigative work on the case.

But “unless/until an official investigation verdict proves otherwise, I continue to consider MTL a giant in science”, Professor Ioannidis said, using a common abbreviation for the president’s name.

Nature has not decided whether to retract the Genentech article. “We are carefully considering concerns regarding this paper,” a spokesperson for the journal said.

Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said the loss of community confidence and harm to the president’s fundraising capabilities may start proving definitive. “Sometimes the public relations spectacle is enough for someone to say they need to step aside so that the institution isn’t constantly answering questions about it,” Professor McClure said.

John Thelin, a research professor emeritus of the history of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky, said that beyond the investigation, the “harder question the president has to face is whether he has retained his credibility and trust”.

He added: “Whether fair or unfair, whether proven wrong or not, if he is then stymied in his leading and credibility, he may out of exhaustion find it best to resign.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Universities should not longer have presidents or vice chancellors, the days of one person ruling like a monarch have no place in collective leadership 2023. It is wrong to give one person lots of power and privilege--universities need to be run collectively.