Stanford president resigns after flaws found in research

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, will step down from his role as president of Stanford (Calif.) University on Aug. 31 amid scrutiny of his past research projects. 

His resignation comes two days after a report found manipulated data in reports Dr. Tessier-Lavigne co-wrote, although it did not fault him for the manipulations. He addressed these findings and announced his departure in a July 19 letter to the Stanford community. 

"I expect there may be ongoing discussion about the report and its conclusions, at least in the near term, which could lead to debate about my ability to lead the university into the new academic year," he wrote. "Stanford is greater than any one of us. It needs a president whose leadership is not hampered by such discussions. I therefore concluded that I should step down before the start of classes." 

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, a prominent neuroscientist, will remain at Stanford as a faculty member and continue conducting research on brain development and neurodegeneration. The university board aims to transition leadership by the start of the next academic year, according to his letter. 

The university began investigating Dr. Tessier-Lavigne in December following allegations of potential misconduct — including images that appeared to be intentionally altered — in research papers he co-wrote. The papers in question were written during or before 2008; Dr. Tessier-Lavigne became Stanford's president in 2016. 

The investigation was expanded in January to include law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Along with the university's board of trustees and a special committee of the board, the firm reviewed 12 papers on which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was a co-author — including five on which he was the principal author — as well as his actions to correct the research and the management of his laboratories. 

The report, published July 17, found Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did not have a role in the manipulation of research data, nor was he aware of it or reckless in failing to identify it. However, manipulation was found in four of the five papers on which he was a principal author.  

"The scientific panel has concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne created a laboratory culture with many positive attributes, but the unusual frequency of manipulation of research data and/or substandard scientific practices from different people, at different times, and in labs at different institutions, suggests that there may have been opportunities to improve laboratory oversight and management," the report said. 

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, who has led research laboratories for 32 years, said he will reassess his processes and controls as a result of the report. 

"While I continually maintain a critical eye on all the science in my lab, I have also always operated my lab on trust — trust in my students and postdocs, and trust that the data they were presenting to me was real and accurate," Dr. Tessier-Lavigne wrote. "Going forward, I will be further tightening controls, including, for example, more systematically matching processed images to original raw data, both in the course of each scientific study and especially when bringing a study to publication. I will vigorously apply this and other best practices to ensure that these kinds of problems do not recur."

He also said he plans to retract three of the papers he principally wrote and correct two. One paper he co-wrote was corrected in May by The European Molecular Biology Organization Journal. 

"I have been in this role for nearly seven years, and it has been the greatest honor and most fulfilling experience of my career," Dr. Tessier-Lavigne wrote. "I will always cherish my time as Stanford's president, and I am proud of what we accomplished together during my tenure."

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