Opinion | The Story of the Student Journalist and the Stanford President

By Theo Baker

Mr. Baker is a rising sophomore at Stanford University. At its daily student newspaper, he won a George Polk Award for investigating allegations of manipulated experimental data in scientific papers published by the university’s president.

There are many rabbit holes on the internet not worth going down. But a comment on an online science forum called PubPeer convinced me something might be at the bottom of this one. “This highly cited Science paper is riddled with problematic blot images,” it said. That anonymous 2015 observation helped spark a chain of events that led Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, to announce his resignation this month.

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne made the announcement after a university investigation found that as a neuroscientist and biotechnology executive, he had fostered an environment that led to “unusual frequency of manipulation of research data and/or substandard scientific practices” across labs at multiple institutions. Stanford opened the investigation in response to reporting I published last autumn in The Stanford Daily, taking a closer look at scientific papers he published from 1999 to 2012.

The review focused on five major papers for which he was listed as a principal author, finding evidence of manipulation of research data in four of them and a lack of scientific rigor in the fifth, a famous study that he said would “turn our current understanding of Alzheimer’s on its head.” The investigation’s conclusions did not line up with my reporting on some key points, which may, in part, reflect the fact that several people with knowledge of the case would not participate in the university’s investigation because it declined to guarantee them anonymity. It did confirm issues in every one of the papers I reported on. (My team of editors, advisers and lawyers at The Stanford Daily stand by our work.)

In retrospect, much of the data manipulation is obvious. Although the report concluded that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was unaware at the time of the manipulation that occurred in his labs, in papers on which he served as a principal author, images had been improperly copied and pasted or spliced; results had been duplicated and passed off as separate experiments; and in some instances — in which the report found an intention to hide the manipulation — panels had been stretched, flipped and doctored in ways that altered the published experimental data. All of this happened before he became Stanford’s president. Why, then, didn’t it come out sooner?

The answer is that people weren’t looking.

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