The journal Cell is opening its own review of research co-authored by Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, following new allegations about an altered image in a 1999 paper.
Minor concerns had been raised about alleged alterations in three images in this paper in the past. And a journal spokesperson confirmed that Tessier-Lavigne contacted Cell about those issues in 2015. At the time, the editors determined that no action was warranted. But last week, Elisabeth Bik, a scientific integrity expert who specializes in identifying manipulated images, identified more significant alterations in one of those images that appeared to have been intentional. “This actually changes everything,” she told STAT. “It’s a more severe level of digital altering.”
These new findings “warrant a closer look,” the journal said in a statement on Monday. “As with any investigation, we will work closely with the authors and our research integrity team to determine the best course of action.”
Last Tuesday, Stanford announced an internal investigation by its board of trustees into several studies co-authored many years ago by its president, after the school’s student newspaper raised questions about images that may have been manipulated in some of the articles’ figures.
The initial investigation included four papers — a 2008 study in the EMBO Journal, a 2003 Nature study, and two studies published in 2001 in Science — that scientists had been scrutinizing on PubPeer, a public site where researchers can flag potential anomalies in article images. It was later expanded to include the 1999 Cell paper, on which Tessier-Lavigne is listed as a senior author.
Cell is the latest journal to initiate its own review of Tessier-Lavigne’s work. In a public post last week, EMBO said it was looking into the 2008 paper on which he is listed as the third author out of 11. Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals recently told a reporter that in reviewing the two Science papers, his team found that Tessier-Lavigne had submitted corrections to both of them in October 2015, but “due to an error” Science never posted them.
In a statement emailed to Stanford faculty members and posted on his lab’s website Monday morning, Tessier-Lavigne said he is working with editors from both Cell and Science to determine the appropriate next steps.
“I want to be clear that I have never submitted a paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented,” he said in the statement. “I also want to be clear that I take responsibility for any concerns that arise with respect to any work with which I have been involved.”
Nature declined to comment on the editorial history of the 2003 paper, saying in a statement that if concerns are raised about any paper it has published, “we would look into them carefully, following an established process.”
Tessier-Lavigne, who served as the president of Rockefeller University from 2011 to 2016 and was once chief scientific officer at Genentech, is known for his pioneering research into the signaling molecules that guide growing neurons in the developing brain and spinal cord. In a separate statement emailed to STAT after this story published, he said he looks forward “to working collaboratively with the editors and their teams at Cell and Science to ensure that any issues that have been raised are promptly and properly addressed. As I have said before, I take these concerns seriously and am committed to a thorough examination of the facts.”
This story has been updated with comments from Tessier-Lavigne.