Stanford University has hired an outside law firm to lead the investigation of its president over allegations of research misconduct, a decision that comes in the wake of criticisms over potential conflicts of interest in the school’s internal review process.
Mark Filip, a former federal judge and Department of Justice official who now defends white-collar clients, will lead the investigation into Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the university said in a statement on Wednesday. Stanford had previously tasked an internal committee made up of its board of trustees with investigating allegations of altered images in papers co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne. The special committee initially included an investor in a startup co-founded by the university president, who has since stepped aside for the investigation.
In a statement, Stanford said Filip will “engage a panel of leading scientific experts who are highly regarded in the appropriate fields” and who work independently from the university.
Tessier-Lavigne, a renowned neuroscientist, came under scrutiny last month after a series of academic papers, published over the course of seven years, appeared to include digitally altered images. Scientists on PubPeer, a site where researchers can flag potential anomalies in academic articles, first noted the issue, which was then reported by the Stanford Daily.
Stanford’s board of trustees responded by creating a special committee to investigate the matter, tasking Carol Lam, a former U.S. attorney and member of the board, with leading the inquest. This week, the Stanford Daily reported that one trustee, Felix Baker, runs a hedge fund with a sizable stake in Denali Therapeutics, a biotech company that Tessier-Lavigne co-founded. Baker left the committee after the Daily’s reporting.
In its statement Wednesday, the board said its review of Tessier-Lavigne’s research would be “rigorous, thorough, and informed by established processes.” The university has not said how long the investigation might take or what punishment might await Tessier-Lavigne if he is determined to have fabricated published research.
The articles in question deal with signaling pathways in the brain. Experts say the most pressing questions about altered images surround a 1999 paper, published in Cell, describing how a molecule called netrin helps coordinate movement throughout the body. The paper has been cited more than 850 times, including in multiple influential reviews published in Science and Nature. Cell, along with other journals, has opened a review into the research co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne.
Tessier-Lavigne has won a number of prestigious awards, including the 2020 Gruber Neuroscience Prize. A former chief scientific officer at the biotechnology company Genentech, he has also been a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine since 2005.