Stanford University has opened an investigation into its president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a renowned neuroscientist and former biotech executive, for research misconduct after experts alleged papers on which he was an author included altered images, the university confirmed.
The university’s board will oversee the investigation.
The revelations followed a report Tuesday in the Stanford Daily that the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Journal was reviewing a 2008 paper co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne. The Daily’s story outlines how experts including Elisabeth Bik, a scientific integrity expert who has investigated image manipulation in scientific papers widely, raised concerns about a total of four papers that Tessier-Lavigne co-authored between 2001 to 2008, including two on which he was the senior author.
Scientists have been scrutinizing the papers on PubPeer, a site where researchers can flag potential problems in articles, the Daily reported.
The Chronicle of Higher Education first reported the university board’s investigation.
“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,” the university said in a statement.
Tessier-Lavigne gained renown in biotech circles as a research executive at Genentech starting in 2003, a golden period at the company. He left Genentech in 2011 to become president of Rockefeller University, and in 2016 became president of Stanford. Tessier-Lavigne is also a co-founder of Bay Area-based Denali Therapeutics, which is developing medicines for neurodegenerative disorders. He is on the board both at Denali and at Regeneron, and previously was on the boards of Pfizer, Agios Pharmaceuticals, and Juno Therapeutics, according to his resume.
Tessier-Lavigne, who specializes in brain development and repair, was a professor at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, before joining Genentech.
In a statement released by the university, Tessier-Lavigne said: “Scientific integrity is of the utmost importance both to the university and to me personally. I support this process and will fully cooperate with it, and I appreciate the oversight by the Board of Trustees.”
In its story Tuesday, the Daily reported that the EMBO Journal had started a review into the 2008 study co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne after concerns about the images were raised on PubPeer. The other studies in question were published in Science and Nature, according to the newspaper.
The university acknowledged to the Daily that there were “issues” in the papers. But a Stanford spokesperson, Dee Mostofi, told the newspaper that Tessier-Lavigne “was not involved in any way in the generation of presentation of the panels that have been queried” in two of the papers, including the one under review by the EMBO Journal. The university told the Daily that the concerns in the other two papers “do not affect the data, results, or interpretations of the papers” — an assertion that Bik contested in the Daily’s story.
The university also told the Daily that Tessier-Lavigne was notified about the errors in some of his papers in late 2015, and that he in turn informed the journals. None of the papers has been corrected.
On Wednesday, Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of the Science journals, acknowledged that Tessier-Lavigne had reported the issues with the images to the journal and prepared “Errata” for the two papers published in Science. “However,” Thorp said in a statement, “due to an error on our part, Science never posted these Errata. 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.”
Stanford’s statement announcing the investigation came after the initial Daily story was published on Tuesday. According to the Daily, the investigation may look into a fifth article co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne, published in 1999 in the journal Cell.
This story has been updated with Holden Thorp’s statement.