Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Wednesday morning that he will step down as leader of the university, following a review of allegations of misconduct related to the authenticity of images published in scientific papers he co-authored.
While a months-long investigation by a committee of the University’s Board of Trustees concluded that he did not personally engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data and did not find evidence that he was aware of misconduct by others prior to publication of the papers, it identified instances of manipulation of research data by others in his lab and found that Tessier-Lavigne should have been more diligent when seeking corrections.
The most serious claim, involving an important 2009 Alzheimer’s study conducted while he was an executive at the biotech company Genentech, “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process” and had “multiple problems,” according to the Board’s report..
“For the good of the University, I have made the decision to step down as President,” Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement. He will leave on August 31.
The Board has named Richard Saller as interim president of the University beginning September 1. Professor of European Studies, Saller was previously dean of the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences as well as a provost and dean at the University of Chicago.
According to Jerry Yang, chair of the Stanford Board of Trustees, Tessier-Lavigne is stepping down “in light of the report and its impact on his ability to lead Stanford.”
The allegations against Tessier-Lavigne, first described on the website PubPeer and reported by the Stanford Daily, focused on concerns related to twelve scientific papers. Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was a principal author on five of those papers. Typically, the principal author oversees the production of the data and the experimental design on an ongoing basis — daily, weekly, or monthly, according to experts.
The concerns did not suggest that the findings were bogus or that patients were harmed. The contested research was conducted prior to his 2016 recruitment from New York City’s Rockefeller University to lead Stanford University. Most of the papers in question are focused on the study of the development of neural connections in the brain.
In some papers, the images seem to have been manipulated. In one instance, an image appeared to have been duplicated, then flipped. Another image was copied. Still another contained a photo that creates a distorted perspective. Some seem to be the result of intentional editing, while others were errors due to poor labeling, miscommunication or careless lab work.
Science, funded by taxpayers, relies on integrity and builds on previous work. If papers contain erroneous images, deliberate or intentional, researchers may waste time or money trying to replicate the results.
Tessier-Lavigne will hold his position as a tenured professor in the Department of Biology and will continue his scientific research on brain development and neurodegeneration. His work is focused on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as on therapies for spinal cord injuries. He also studies how defects in neural development lead to illness, disability and death.
Undergraduate student Ben Keane, who said he was frustrated by Tessier-Lavigne’s “anti-Graduate Worker Union advocacy and clamping down on social life and student fun,” was relieved by the news.
“It shows that the student body still has a voice and at least a little power,” he said.
But Hamzah Daud, also an undergraduate, said Tessier-Lavigne’s mistakes were “nothing that was malicious or deceitful. Haven’t we all made mistakes?”
While students have criticisms of the president’s housing and social life policies, said Daud, he “has fully excelled at the core responsibility his job: education and research. I have not met a single Stanford student that has been disappointed about the quality of academics at Stanford. Our research leads the world, and continues to grow at an accelerated pace during his tenure.”
Carolyn Stein, a reporting intern who studies at Stanford University, contributed to this article.