A celebrated Canadian neuroscientist is stepping down as president of Stanford University after a review panel found evidence of data manipulation in papers he co-authored and substandard practices in a laboratory under his control.
Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2020, has been called a world leader in the science of brain development, his research examining causes and treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. He rose to prominence over the past 32 years as a principal author of 74 academic papers and a contributor to more than 150 others.
But he will now retract three of those papers and issue corrections for two others after a panel of distinguished scholars – including 2013 Nobel laureate Randy Schekman – submitted a report, published Wednesday, documenting “serious flaws.”
It amounts to a significant blemish on the career of a prominent researcher who was called a “leader among leaders” when, in 2016, he was named president of one of the world’s foremost research institutions. Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, who also holds U.S. citizenship, was born in Trenton, Ont. to a military family. He graduated from McGill University before beginning an international career that included research in Britain, work at biotechnology company Genentech and leadership of Rockefeller University.
The 95-page report does not accuse Dr. Tessier-Lavigne himself of scientific wrongdoing, noting “his seminal contributions to the field of neuroscience” and saying he “did not personally engage in research misconduct.”
But multiple members of his labs “appear to have manipulated research data and/or fallen short of accepted scientific practices,” the report finds, including through the doctoring and reuse of images used to support results.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne has maintained that any misconduct was not his doing, or published with his knowledge.
“I have never submitted a scientific paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented,” he wrote in a Wednesday letter to the Stanford community. “Today’s report supports that statement.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne has made efforts over the past decade to fix errors in past work, although some of those were not published and the panel faulted him for failing to do enough to seek corrections.
Public allegations of research improprieties emerged last year, spotted in part by Elisabeth Bik, a former Stanford researcher who has become a world leader in detecting image duplication and manipulation, and reported by The Stanford Daily student newspaper.
In the papers co-authored by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, one image was reused to suggest it represented three different experiments. In another, “parts of a photo had been rearranged to represent two different experiments. That’s not beautification. That was changing the data,” said Dr. Bik, whose work has contributed to nearly 1,000 retractions.
The Stanford Board of Trustees called for an independent review last December.
The review found that, despite the manipulation of images, there is no reason to question the broader conclusions of most of the research that it examined, with the exception of a 2009 paper in the Nature journal that described a potential method of attacking Alzheimer’s, which proved incorrect. But modern scientific history is replete with examples of other failed approaches to Alzheimer’s, said Mark Filip, a former federal judge who led the investigation.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne will continue as a professor, Stanford said in a statement from Board of Trustees chair Jerry Yang, who noted the departing president’s “seminal contributions to the field of neuroscience.”
Dr. Bik questioned the role he should maintain: He is “probably a very good scientist,” she said. But “he should not be leading any labs any more.”
Indeed, the extent of the problems discovered constitute “a major significant blow to his reputation as a scientist,” said Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University. “It’s going to have fallout for him personally. It’s going to have fallout in the fields in which those papers were written.”
Prof. Wolpe argues, however, that the proper response lies in offering help rather than curbing output.
A person can rise to scientific prominence based on their extraordinary work, only to find themselves atop a sprawling research enterprise, fuelled by millions of dollars in grants, he said.
Such labs are populated by people under pressure to advance careers and salaries: “All of that is so tied into positive results of experimentation that the temptations of the system drive people into bad behaviour,” said Prof. Wolpe, who was on the committee that drafted Fostering Integrity in Research, an updated guide to responsible science published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Large labs require strong structures and oversight, and the “sloppiness” under Dr. Tessier-Lavigne raises questions about whether universities are providing adequate management support, Prof. Wolpe said.
“It’s not fraud here. It’s just a lack of a kind of skill that we expect – perhaps sometimes unreasonably – top-level scientists to have.”