July 20, 2024
Two papers were retracted because of evidence that they contained altered images.

In an admission that caps his downfall from one of the most prestigious posts in academic research, Stanford University president and noted neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne has retracted two scientific papers bearing his name as an author because of evidence that they contained altered images.

The decision, announced in two letters in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, comes after Tessier-Lavigne’s July 19 resignation as the university’s leader and an official investigation by Stanford’s Board of Trustees into the 2001 research, which described the development and growth of the nervous system.

In his statements, Tessier-Lavigne does not say whether the Photoshopped “beautification,” duplication and formatting problems — “undermining confidence in the paper’s conclusions,” he wrote — were caused by error or misconduct. No one has imputed the alterations to Tessier-Lavigne; his fault was a failure to detect and correct the problems.

Articles are retracted when their findings are no longer considered trustworthy. Because science seeks to be self-correcting, retractions provide a critically important function by rectifying the scientific record.

But they stain a reputation, waste scientific resources that are supported by taxpayer dollars and undermine public trust in science. Other scientists base their research on previous papers, and those subsequent works do not necessarily get flagged. One of Tessier-Lavigne’s retracted papers — at the time, lauded as “a tour de force study” in a separate commentary in Science — has been cited more than 400 times; the other, more than 200 times.

A retraction doesn’t erase an article from the scientific literature. Instead, it carries a watermark to inform readers that the article has been retracted.

“I regret the impact of these issues on the scientific community,” wrote Tessier-Lavigne.

Junior author Elke Stein, a “visiting faculty scholar” who no longer works at Stanford, disagreed with the decision to retract the papers, Tessier-Lavigne wrote in his letters. Stein did not respond to a request for comment.

Tessier-Lavigne, 64, was Stanford’s 11th president. His withdrawal of the two disputed papers comes on the final day of his seven-year term. Tessier-Lavigne announced in July that he was stepping down “for the good of the University,” anticipating ongoing debate about the controversy. He will remain at the university as a tenured professor of biology.

On Sept. 1, Richard Saller, a professor of European Studies and former dean of the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences, will serve as Stanford’s interim president. The university said there are no updates in the search for a replacement.

Meanwhile, there is also turnover for the position of university provost, with responsibility as the chief academic officer and chief budgetary officer. Law School dean Jenny Martinez has been named to succeed physicist Persis Drell. Martinez will assume her position on Oct. 1.

Tessier-Lavigne’s retractions are the final step in a controversy that prompted a months-long university investigation, several journal editorials and a national debate about how science should best be policed.

“The retractions are good for science,” said Elisabeth Bik, a Bay Area-based image-analysis expert. The Tessier-Lavigne case involved one of many problematic images that Bik has detected in scientific papers, leading to dozens of retractions and hundreds of corrections.

“But the authors are all damaged,” she added. “And other researchers who have based their research on these papers may be damaged in some way if they built on data that is not reliable anymore. … They might have spent a lot of time. Research is expensive.”

Concerns about the images of “Western blots,” a technique used to separate and identify proteins, first came up on the scientific online forum PubPeer in 2015 when Tessier-Lavigne, then president of Rockefeller University, was under consideration for the Stanford presidency.

Tessier-Lavigne notified Science in 2015 with his concerns. But the journal never published his request for a correction “due to an error on our part,” according to editor Holden Thorp, who has since issued an apology.

Uncorrected, it became a quietly festering problem. In late 2022, new publicity emerged in Stanford’s student paper, The Stanford Daily, eventually expanding to include a total of 12 scientific papers. Tessier-Lavigne was a principal author on five of those papers.

In addition to the two Science retractions, he said he would request retraction of a 1999 paper that appeared in the journal Cell. He is also expected to request substantial corrections in two papers published in the journal Nature.

Those three journals represent the summit of scholarly research.

Although journals have an important role to play in detecting scientific misconduct, they do not have primary responsibility for investigations, according to Dr. Ferric Fang, a University of Washington microbiologist and journal editor who has worked with Bik on an analysis of 20,621 papers that detected 782 “inappropriate” duplications.

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That responsibility rests with the author’s institution, such as Stanford, although Tessier-Lavigne wasn’t there at the time of the incidents — and, if funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is involved, the Office of Research Integrity.

The Stanford investigation, led by former federal judge Mark Filip and conducted by an outside panel of scientists, identified additional problems, including manipulation of portions of images and another panel duplication.

While Tessier-Lavigne did not personally engage in any fraud or falsification of scientific data, Stanford investigators found, his role “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process,” especially for such a potentially important paper.

This week’s retractions represent a dramatic reversal of Tessier-Lavigne’s initial stance. In a statement last December, he said that he believed in the authenticity of contested data, saying “I want to be clear that I have never submitted a paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented.”

The retractions and resignation serve as a warning to senior investigators to maintain a close watch on how digital images are edited, said Bik. And they show that scientists are being held accountable for meeting standards of research integrity.

“Medicine relies on reliable science,” Bik said. “There should be consequences if research misconduct is found.”