Truth and Shadows

Stanford Signals a High Bar for Scientific Rigor

The President of Stanford University, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, announced his resignation this week, following a review of his research that concluded some of it “fell below customary standards of scientific rigor and process.” If you entertain any doubt about the importance of attention to scientific rigor and integrity, this should resolve it.

Retractions and Corrections After 20 Years

The news came this week after months of intense scrutiny. Concerns about his research surfaced years ago on PubPeer – a website that provides an open forum for post publication peer review. But those concerns took on a new life when the Stanford University student newspaper published a series of articles about deficiencies in the scientific rigor and integrity of research overseen by Tessier-Lavigne.

As a result, an independent panel of scientists conducted more than 50 interviews, reviewed more than 50,000 documents, and issued an 89-page report. That report rejected accusations of fraud and falsification of data. But it did find multiple problems with scientific rigor and quality assurance.

As a result, Tessier-Lavigne will request retraction of a 1999 paper published in Cell and two papers from 2001 published in Science. He also will likely request corrections to two highly visible papers in Nature.

Assuring Scientific Rigor

Professor Matthew Schrag had previously raised issues with some of the studies in question. Reflecting on those issues, he told the New York Times he understands the challenges of scrutinizing every bit of data produced by an entire research team. But, he said:

“The accumulation of problems does rise to a level that needs some oversight.

“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. 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.”

Scientific rigor is no easy matter to assure. Errors can occur. But the lesson here is that prompt attention to such errors can be less costly than attention that comes after a delay.

For further reporting on this, click here, here, and here.

Truth and Shadows, photograph by Infrogmation of New Orleans, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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July 21, 2023