Letter to Stanford colleagues
Dear Stanford colleagues,
I don’t normally write to you at the end of the fall quarter like this, as everyone is preparing for the upcoming break. Because of some of the news headlines you have been seeing over the past two weeks, however, I felt it was important to be in touch with you before our community begins to scatter for the winter close.
As you know, a number of questions have been raised about images in scientific articles in which I was either the senior author or a collaborating contributor. I wrote to the faculty about this subject recently, but I’ve continued to hear from many faculty and staff across our university community who are seeking to better understand the nature of these concerns and the ongoing process to evaluate them. Here, I’d like to offer everyone an update and a perspective on these issues.
Importantly, the Special Committee appointed by the Board of Trustees is currently engaging a panel of independent scientific experts to review the articles in question. I have already pledged to the faculty that I am fully committed to cooperating with the Committee in their efforts to reach an accurate understanding of the questions that have been raised.
As many of you know, biological research, the focus of my scientific work, often involves large collaborative efforts where different laboratories pool expertise, data, and the reagents used in lab experiments. The senior (or corresponding) author of the study is responsible for directing the overall effort, which often includes dozens of image panels as part of the data supporting the conclusions of the work. Collaborating authors play a contributing role and have responsibility for the work of their staff and lab.
In recent years, the application of powerful contemporary digital analysis tools has revealed problems in many images in the published biological literature. The problems can range from the very serious to simple errors that may have arisen inadvertently during manuscript preparation. Authors address these issues together with the scientific journals, which may periodically update readers on the status of an ongoing review. Over the past decade, journals have increasingly put in place mechanisms to help authors proactively catch and correct such image problems prior to publication.
Two categories of papers
Over the course of my career, I have served as senior author or collaborating coauthor on over 200 publications. In every case, at the time of submission I believed that the data were correct and accurately presented. With respect to the articles under review, I was senior author of three of them and a collaborating coauthor on another seven. All of these articles are 10-20 years old.
Starting with the articles on which I am a collaborating coauthor, the data that are being questioned were in each case generated in the laboratory of the senior author. Those senior authors are in contact with the journal editors, and most have also been addressing the issues in online posts. Although their responses are in some cases preliminary, they are substantive, and I encourage those interested in more deeply understanding the issues to review their comments, which can be accessed through this link.
A second set of concerns relates to images from my laboratory in three articles of which I was senior author, one in Cell in 1999, and two in Science in 2001. Several years ago, I corresponded extensively with editors at the two journals regarding concerns that had been raised. The majority of the concerns related to what were cosmetic enhancements at the edges of images that did not affect the data content of the images or the study’s conclusions – a practice that was not uncommon at the time the papers were published, though journals later adopted policies to phase it out. There were also some additional issues, including instances where images were duplicated. The Cell editorial team declined to publish a correction based on the information then available. Science accepted my corrections but did not publish them, for which they recently “apologize[d] to the scientific community.”
In recent weeks, I became aware of additional issues that were raised about some images in two of the three papers where I was senior author. I have been working with the journal editors on appropriate steps forward. As with any such review, questions, such as the following, will be addressed: What is the nature of the issue for each image? When, how and why did it arise? Why was it not picked up during manuscript preparation and review? And, most importantly, what if anything do these issues mean for the conclusions related to the image panels or for the studies themselves?
I want to once again vigorously affirm that I have never submitted a paper for publication without firmly believing that the data were correct and accurately presented. I also want everyone to know that I take extremely seriously any concerns that are raised about my work as a scientist.
As president of Stanford University and head of a laboratory, I care deeply about the rigorous pursuit of the truth and integrity of science. In our university setting of scholars and students, there is an expectation of all of us to critically understand facts and to assess those facts with reflection and care. I am committed to doing that here. As the review process moves ahead, I will continue to post any updates on my lab’s website and will communicate with the university community as needed.
Finally, and more broadly, I want to thank each of you for the contributions you have made to the work of Stanford University this year. I hope that the upcoming winter break proves restful and restorative for you. And, I look forward to our work in the new year to continue advancing our university’s mission for society.
With the greatest of respect,
President, Stanford University
Bing Presidential Professor and Head of the Tessier-Lavigne Laboratory at Stanford University
NOTE: Updated December 14, 2022, to add a link to Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s three senior authorship papers.