Following months of intense scrutiny of his scientific work, Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced Wednesday that he would resign as president of Stanford University after an independent review of his research found significant flaws in studies he supervised going back decades.
The review, conducted by an outside panel of scientists, refuted the most serious claim involving Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s work — that an important 2009 Alzheimer’s study was the subject of an investigation that found falsified data and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had covered it up.
The panel concluded that the claims “appear to be mistaken” and that there was no evidence of falsified data or that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had otherwise engaged in fraud.
But the review also stated that the 2009 study, conducted while he was an executive at the biotech company Genentech, had “multiple problems” and “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process,” especially for such a potentially important paper.
As a result of the review, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was expected to request substantial corrections in the 2009 paper, published in Nature, as well as another Nature study. He also said he would request retraction of a 1999 paper that appeared in the journal Cell and two others that appeared in Science in 2001.
Stanford is known for its leadership in scientific research, and even though the claims involved work published before Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s arrival at the university in 2016, the accusations reflected poorly on the university’s integrity.
In a statement describing his reasons for resigning, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said, “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.”
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne will relinquish the presidency at the end of August but remain at the university as a tenured professor of biology. As president, he started the university’s first new school in 70 years, the climate-focused Doerr School of Sustainability. A noted neuroscientist, he has published more than 220 papers, primarily on the cause and treatment of degenerative brain diseases.
The university named Richard Saller, a professor of European studies, as interim president, effective Sept. 1.
The Stanford panel’s 89-page report, based on more than 50 interviews and a review of more than 50,000 documents, concluded that members of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s labs engaged in inappropriate manipulation of research data or deficient scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in five papers that listed Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as the principal author.
In several instances, the panel found, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne took insufficient steps to correct mistakes, and it questioned his decision not to seek a correction in the 2009 paper after follow-up studies revealed that its key finding was wrong.
The flaws cited by the panel involved a total of 12 papers, including seven in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was listed as co-author.
The accusations against Dr. Tessier-Lavigne, 63, had first surfaced years ago on PubPeer, an online crowdsourcing site for publishing and discussing scientific work.
But they resurfaced after the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, published a series of articles questioning the work produced in laboratories overseen by Dr. Tessier-Lavigne. In November, The Stanford Daily reported claims that images were manipulated in published papers listing Dr. Tessier-Lavigne as either lead author or co-author.
In February, The Stanford Daily published more serious claims of fraud involving the 2009 paper that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne published while a senior scientist at Genentech. It said an investigation by Genentech found that the study contained falsified data, and that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne tried to keep its findings hidden.
It also said that a postdoctoral researcher who had worked on the study had been caught by Genentech falsifying data. Both Dr. Tessier-Lavigne and the former researcher, now a medical doctor practicing in Florida, strongly denied the claims, which relied heavily on unnamed sources.
The review panel said that The Stanford Daily’s claim that “Genentech had conducted a fraud investigation and made a finding of fraud” in the study “appear to be mistaken.” No such investigation had been conducted, the report said, but it noted that the panel was unable to identify some unnamed sources cited in the story.
Kaushikee Nayudu, the editor in chief and president of The Stanford Daily, said in a statement on Wednesday that the newspaper stood by its reporting.
In response to the newspaper’s initial report about manipulated studies in November, Stanford’s board of trustees formed a special committee to review the claims, led by Carol Lam, a Stanford trustee and former federal prosecutor. The special committee then engaged Mark Filip, a former federal judge in Illinois, and his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to run the review.
In January, it was announced that Mr. Filip had enlisted the five-member scientific panel — which included a Nobel laureate and a former Princeton president — to examine the claims from a scientific perspective.
Genentech had touted the 2009 study as a breakthrough, with Dr. Tessier-Lavigne characterizing the findings during a presentation to Genentech investors as a completely new and different way of looking at the Alzheimer’s disease process.
The study focused on what it said was the previously unknown role of a brain protein — Death Receptor 6 — in the development of Alzheimer’s.
As has been the case with many new theories in Alzheimer’s, a central finding of the study was found to be incorrect. Following several years of attempts to duplicate the results, Genentech ultimately abandoned the line of inquiry.
Dr. Tessier-Lavigne left Genentech in 2011 to head Rockefeller University, but, along with the company, published subsequent work acknowledging the failure to confirm key parts of the research.
More recently, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne told the industry publication Stat News that there had been inconsistencies in the results of experiments, which he blamed on impure protein samples.
The failure of his laboratory to assure the samples’ purity was one of the scientific process problems cited by the panel, even though it found that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was unaware of those problems at the time. It called Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s decision to not correct the original paper as “suboptimal” but within the bounds of scientific practice.
In his statement, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said that he had earlier tried to issue corrections to the Cell and Science papers but that Cell had declined to publish a correction and Science failed to publish one after agreeing to do so.
The panel’s findings echoed a report released in April by Genentech, which said its own internal review of The Stanford Daily’s claims did not find any evidence of “fraud, fabrication, or other intentional wrongdoing.”
Most of the Stanford panel’s report is a detailed appendix that analyzes images in 12 published papers in which Dr. Tessier-Lavigne served either as author or co-author, some dating back 20 years.
In the papers, the panel found multiple instances of images that had been duplicated or spliced but concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne had not participated in the manipulation, was not aware of them at the time, and had not been reckless in failing to detect them.
Dr. Matthew Schrag, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University who in February flagged problems with the 2009 Alzheimer’s study, said that the study’s publication illustrated how scientific journals sometimes give prominent researchers the benefit of the doubt while vetting their studies.
For senior scientists running busy labs, Dr. Schrag said, it may be difficult to scrutinize every piece of data produced by more junior researchers they supervise. But, he said, “I think the accumulation of problems does rise to a level that needs some oversight.”
Dr. Schrag, stressing that he was speaking for himself and not Vanderbilt, said Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation made sense, as did his remaining on faculty. He noted that many of Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s discoveries had been validated and had helped untangle critical mysteries of neuroscience.
“I have some mixed feelings about the heat that he’s taking, because I think that it’s extremely unlikely he was the key player at fault here,” Dr. Schrag said. “I think he had a responsibility to do more probably than he did, but that also doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying to do the right thing.”
Oliver Whang, Benjamin Mueller and Katie Robertson contributed reporting.