Stanford investigates potential misconduct in president’s research

Stanford University has launched an investigation of possible research misconduct in several papers co-authored many years ago by its president, neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, after the school’s student newspaper raised questions about potentially manipulated images in the articles.

The university “will assess the allegations presented in The Stanford Daily, consistent with its normal rigorous approach by which allegations of research misconduct are reviewed and investigated,” an administrator told a reporter last night. The statement, also shared with Science, came a day after the university downplayed the possible image problems in its initial response to the Daily.

Tessier-Lavigne, former president of Rockefeller University who was also once chief scientific officer at Genentech, is known for his work on axon guidance molecules, proteins that govern the growth of key nerve fibers in the developing spinal cord. The publications under scrutiny include two 2001 Science papers, a 2003 Nature paper, and a 2008 paper in the European Molecular Biology Organization’s The EMBO Journal.

Questions about certain images in the papers first surfaced years ago on PubPeer, an online forum where scientists comment, often anonymously, on possible problems in published research. Some posts suggested various Western blots, which document a protein’s presence, were repeated in more than one figure or altered—potentially innocent mistakes or signs of research misconduct.

The EMBO Journal recently wrote on PubPeer that the journal was “looking into” concerns about its paper from 2008, when Tessier-Lavigne was at Genentech. Daily reporter Theo Baker discussed the four papers with misconduct experts such as Elisabeth Bik, a specialist in spotting manipulated images, who agreed they had “serious problems.”

A Stanford spokesperson initially told the Daily that any errors either did not involve Tessier-Lavigne or did not affect the data or results presented in the papers. But last night, as first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanford said it will now conduct an investigation overseen by the university’s Board of Trustees. The review will also include a 1999 Cell paper, according to the Daily. Tessier-Lavigne, then at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), had reported errors in the Cell paper to the journal in 2015, but its editors found no correction was necessary, Stanford spokesperson Dee Mostofi told the Daily.

“Scientific integrity is of the utmost importance both to the university and to me personally,” Tessier-Lavigne said in Stanford’s statement. “I support this process and will fully cooperate with it.” He did not immediately respond to an email from Science requesting comment.

Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, said Tessier-Lavigne submitted corrections to both Science papers in October 2015, but “due to an error” Science never posted them. “We regret this error, apologize to the scientific community, and will be sharing our next steps as they relate to these two papers as soon as possible,” Thorp said in a statement.

The two Science papers and the Cell paper all list Tessier-Lavigne as a senior or corresponding author and Elke Stein, also then at UCSF, as either first or last author. Stein’s LinkedIn page says she is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford, but she is not listed in its directory; she does not appear to have published any neuroscience papers since 2012. And Stein is not on the Nature or EMBO Journal papers, making Tessier-Lavigne the only author on all the challenged articles. He is a middle author on the Nature and EMBO Journal papers.

According to the Daily, a thorough investigation may only be possible if the underlying data from the papers is still available. But Vanderbilt University physician and neuroscientist Matthew Schrag, who recently uncovered image manipulation in a raft of key papers on Alzheimer’s disease, suggested to the Daily that the concerns “do not appear to represent a systematic issue throughout Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s extensive and influential body of work.”

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