After months of intense scrutiny of his scientific work, Marc Tessier-Lavigne Announced on Wednesday that he would step down as president of Stanford University after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he oversaw over decades.
He reviewby an outside panel of scientists, refuted the most serious claim related to Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s work: that a major 2009 Alzheimer’s study was the subject of an investigation that found falsified data and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had covered it up.
The panel concluded that the claims “appear to be wrong” and that there was no evidence of falsified data or that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had committed any other type of fraud.
But the review also noted that the 2009 study, conducted while he was an executive at the biotech company Genentech, had “multiple problems” and “fell below the usual standards of rigor and scientific process,” especially for a potentially important paper.
As a result of the review, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was expected to request substantial corrections to the 2009 article, published in Nature, as well as to another Nature study. She also said she would request the retraction of a 1999 article that appeared in Cell magazine and two others that appeared in Science in 2001.
Stanford is known for its leadership in scientific research, and while the claims involved work published before Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s arrival at the university in 2016, the allegations reflected poorly on the university’s integrity.
In a statement outlining the reasons for his resignation, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said: “I hope there will be an ongoing discussion about the report and its conclusions, at least in the short term, which could lead to a debate about my ability to guide the university into the new academic year.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne will step down as president at the end of August, but will remain at the university as a tenured professor of biology. As president, she launched the university’s first new school in 70 years, the climate-focused Doerr School of Sustainability. A noted neuroscientist, he has published more than 220 articles, primarily on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases.
The university named Richard Saller, a professor of European studies, as interim president effective September 1.
The Stanford panel’s 89-page report, based on more than 50 interviews and a review of more than 50,000 documents, concluded that members of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s labs engaged in inappropriate handling of research data or poor scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in five papers that listed Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as the lead author.
In several cases, the panel found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not take sufficient steps to correct errors, and questioned his decision not to seek a correction in the 2009 paper after follow-up studies revealed that his key finding was incorrect.
The flaws cited by the panel involved a total of 12 articles, including seven where Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was listed as a co-author.
The allegations against Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, 63, first surfaced years ago on PubPeer, an online crowdsourcing site for publishing and discussing scientific papers.
But they resurfaced after the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a series of articles questioning the work produced in the laboratories supervised by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne. In November, The Stanford Daily reported claims that the images were doctored in published articles that list Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as the lead or co-author.
In February, The Stanford Daily published more serious fraud claims related to the 2009 paper that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne published when he was a senior scientist at Genentech. He said a Genentech investigation found the study contained falsified data and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne he tried to keep his findings hidden.
He also said that a postdoctoral researcher who had worked on the study had been caught by Genentech falsifying data. Both Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and the former researcher, now a physician practicing in Florida, strongly denied the claims, which were largely based on unnamed sources.
The review panel said The Stanford Daily’s claim that “Genentech had conducted a fraud investigation and found fraud” in the study “appears to be in error.” No such investigation had been carried out, according to the report, but noted that the panel was unable to identify some anonymous sources cited in the story.
Kaushikee Nayudu, editor-in-chief and president of The Stanford Daily, said in a statement Wednesday that the paper stood by his reporting.
In response to the newspaper’s initial report of rigged studies in November, Stanford’s board of trustees formed a special committee to review the claims, led by Carol Lam, a Stanford administrator and former federal prosecutor. The special committee then hired Mark Filip, a former federal judge in Illinois, and his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to conduct the review.
In January, it was announced that Mr. Filip had recruited the five-member scientific panel, which included a Nobel laureate and a former Princeton president, to examine the claims from a scientific perspective.
Genentech had touted the 2009 study as a breakthrough, with Dr. Tessier-Lavigne characterizing the findings during a presentation to Genentech investors as a completely new and different way of looking at the Alzheimer’s disease process.
The study focused on what it said was the previously unknown role of a brain protein, Death Receptor 6, in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
As has been the case with many new theories about Alzheimer’s, a central finding of the study was found to be incorrect. After several years of attempts to duplicate the results, Genentech finally abandoned the line of research.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne left Genentech in 2011 to head Rockefeller University, but, along with the company, she published subsequent work acknowledging the lack of confirmation of key parts of the research.
More recently, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne told the industry publication Stat News that there had been inconsistencies in the results of the experiments, for which he blamed impure protein samples.
His lab’s failure to ensure sample purity was one of the scientific process issues cited by the panel, though it found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was unaware of those issues at the time. He called Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s decision not to proofread the original article “suboptimal” but within the limits of scientific practice.
In his statement, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said he had previously attempted to publish corrections to the Cell and Science papers, but Cell had refused to publish a correction and Science was unable to publish one after agreeing to do so.
The panel’s findings echoed a report published in April by Genentech, which saying its own internal review of The Stanford Daily’s claims found no evidence of “fraud, fabrication, or other intentional wrongdoing.”
The bulk of the Stanford panel’s report is a detailed appendix analyzing images in 12 published papers that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne served as author or co-author, some dating back 20 years.
In the documents, the panel found multiple instances of images that had been duplicated or spliced, but concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had no role in the tampering, was unaware of them at the time, and had not been reckless in not detecting them.
Dr. Matthew Schrag, assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, who pointed out problems with the 2009 Alzheimer’s study in February, said the study’s publication illustrates how scientific journals sometimes give prominent researchers the benefit of the doubt while reviewing their studies.
For senior scientists running busy labs, Dr. Schrag said, it can be difficult to scrutinize every piece of data produced by the younger researchers they supervise. But, he said, “I think the accumulation of problems has risen to a level that needs some monitoring.”
Dr. Schrag, emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not Vanderbilt, said that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation made sense, as did his tenure on the faculty. He noted that many of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s discoveries had been validated and had helped unravel critical mysteries in neuroscience.
“I have some mixed feelings about the heat he’s getting because I think it’s highly unlikely that he was the key player at fault here,” Dr. Schrag said. “I think he probably had a responsibility to do more than he did, but that also doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to do the right thing.”
Oliver Wang, Benjamin Muller and katie robertson contributed reporting.