On 9 December 2022 we reported that the president of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a prize-winning neuroscientist, and former biotech leader (seen right, © Jeff Singer), was under investigation following allegations of manipulation of published data. He vigorously defended himself: “I want to be clear that I have never submitted a paper without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented. As a scientist, I am dedicated to the rigorous pursuit of the truth.” Following an expert panel’s report, Tessier-Lavigne has just announced he would step down from his post, effective end-August 2023. So, how did this happen?
It turns out Stanford’s president was toppled by a freshman, Theo Baker, a journalist for the Stanford Daily, who investigated rumours that a paper co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne was being critically reviewed by the journal following allegations the research contained multiple altered images. Baker consulted with Elisabeth Bik, a Dutch scientist who specialises in scientific misconduct, and sought her input. She disagreed with Stanford’s assertion that the “mistakes” did not impact the scientific integrity of the papers and encouraged Baker to publish his exposé.
In February this year, 18-year-old Baker from Washington, DC became the youngest recipient of the prestigious George Polk Award for investigative journalism (seen left, © Los Angeles Times). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: his mother is Susan Glasser, celebrated columnist for The New Yorker, while his father is Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. As a student journalist reporting on his own institution’s president, Baker came under considerable pressure which he described as “nerve-racking.” Fortunately, the Stanford Daily has been independent from the university for 50 years.
Nevertheless, Tessier-Lavigne hired a large law firm that sent aggressive and threatening letters to Baker, demanding that he retract his articles exposing the alleged incidents of fraud he had uncovered. Baker stood firm and was ultimately vindicated by the expert panel’s report which concluded that Tessier-Lavigne “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.”
There was no evidence that Stanford’s president himself manipulated data, leading him to state: “The report identified some areas where I should have done better, and I accept the conclusions.” That said, Tessier-Lavigne will retract or issue lengthy corrections to five widely cited articles for which he served as the principal author. This saga reflects poorly on Stanford University, but it also speaks to a wider problem in biomedical research where many papers will often have more than a dozen co-authors, not all of whom will be au fait with the scientific content.