When we first went to Dr. Tessier-Lavigne with questions in the fall, a Stanford spokeswoman responded instead, claiming the concerns raised about three of his publications “do not affect the data, results or interpretation of the papers.” But as the Stanford-sponsored investigation found and he eventually came to agree, that was not true.

Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s plan to retract or issue robust corrections for at least five papers for which he was a principal author is a rare act for a scientist of his stature. It seems unlikely this would have happened without the public pressure of the past eight months; in fact, the report concluded that “at various times when concerns with Dr. Tessier-Lavigne’s papers emerged — in 2001, the early 2010s, 2015-16 and March 2021 — Dr. Tessier-Lavigne failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record.”

The Stanford investigation did not find that Dr. Tessier-Lavigne personally altered data or pasted pieces of experimental images together. Instead, it found that he had presided over a lab culture that “tended to reward the ‘winners’ (that is, postdocs who could generate favorable results) and marginalize or diminish the ‘losers’ (that is, postdocs who were unable or struggled to generate such data).” In a statement, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said, “I can state categorically that I did not desire this dynamic. I have always treated all the scientists in my lab with the utmost respect, and I have endeavored to ensure that all members flourish as successful scientists.”

Winner-takes-all stakes are, unfortunately, an all-too-common occurrence in academic science, with postdoctoral researchers often subject to the intense pressure of the need to publish or perish. Having a paper with your name on it in Nature, Science or Cell, the high-profile journals in which many of the papers reviewed by the Stanford investigation appeared, can make or break young careers. Postdocs are underpaid; Stanford recently purchased housing that was intended to be affordable for them, then reportedly set minimum salary requirements for living there higher than their wages. They are also jockeying to stand out in a field with limited lab positions and professorship openings. And senior researchers sometimes take credit for their postdocs’ work and ideas but brush off responsibility should errors or mistakes arise.

What isn’t common, of course, is the “frequency of manipulation of research data and/or substandard scientific practices” in the labs Dr. Tessier-Lavigne ran, the Stanford report concluded. Falsification, the technical term for much of this conduct, involves “violating fundamental research standards and basic societal values,” according to the National Academy of Sciences. In his statement, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne said that he has “always sought to model the highest values of the profession, both in terms of rigor and of integrity, and I have worked diligently to promote a positive culture in my lab.” Despite the report’s characterization of what went on in his labs as rare and irregular, lessons from this case apply across the field, especially regarding the importance of correcting the scientific record.

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