Stanford shifts research probe to outside investigator


Stanford University has tapped an outsider to run an investigation of alleged research misconduct by president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, saying the review will be conducted “with rigor and impartiality.”

The appointment of Washington D.C.-based Mark Filip, a former federal judge and former Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice under George W. Bush with expertise in white-collar and regulatory defense, signals a significant, if subtle, shift in the university’s approach.

While responsibility for Filip’s review remains with the university’s Board of Trustees, the investigation will not be run by Stanford affiliates. Tessier-Lavigne is a member of the university’s Board of Trustees, and also reports to the Board in his position as president.

The university also established an email address — [email protected] — for members of the community to share their perspectives about the allegations.

“The review will be rigorous, thorough, and informed by established processes,” according a statement by a Board of Trustees committee.

Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist and former president of Rockefeller University who was also once chief scientific officer at Genentech, is nationally respected for his research into brain development and repair, especially the proteins that govern the growth of key nerve fibers in the developing spinal cord.

But experts have identified at least seven papers co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne with allegedly suspect images. Some seem to be the result of intentional editing, while others could have been errors due to poor labeling, miscommunication or careless lab work.

Of the seven papers, he was the senior author in three: a 1999 Cell paper, and two papers published in Science in 2001. Of the four other papers, he was a middle author.  The journals also are investigating the allegations.

The problems, first reported anonymously on the website PubPeer, were confirmed by an analysis by Elisabeth Bik, a nationally recognized expert in image analysis and research integrity. The concerns was first reported by The Stanford Daily.

Filip and his law firm Kirkland & Ellis will assemble a panel of scientific experts to assess and evaluate the contested journal articles, in consultation with a Stanford Board of Trustees committee and university faculty, according to the university’s statement.

Filip, a graduate of Harvard Law School, has no apparent ties to Stanford.

But Bik expressed concern that a lawyer and his law firm, not scientists, will be overseeing the investigation.

“It looks like it’s protecting the reputation of the university more than doing an investigation, from a scientific point of view,” she said. “Lawyers don’t always have a good insight on what the specific questions are — and the specific expertise that is needed to investigate these cases.”

“These are scientific questions, not things that are presumably illegal,” she said.

For instance, a scientist would be familiar with the enormous amount of data that is generated in a lab – and how that data is stored, accessed, reproduced and published, she added.

An image forensics expert could offer insights into Photoshopping and other possible manipulations that were used to create the papers’ suspect images, she said.

“There are so many technical things that come to play, and you need to have knowledge of those,” she said.


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