More than only the shocking demise of the president of one of the best research institutions in the country is marked by Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation as president of Stanford University following an examination into inconsistencies in his prior research.
The case is expected to have wider effects and marks a turning point in a long-running, frequently heated discussion about how to allocate blame and credit in the increasingly collaborative world of research.
A team sport is science. And while the lab directors, or primary investigators, frequently receive the majority of the credit for biomedical innovations, they hardly ever conduct experiments.
Postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and others are responsible for such job; they spend endless hours pipetting, working in mouse rooms, and peering through microscopes. Professors instead take on a more administrative role, supervising, evaluating, and providing a broad range of comments on the work that is done in their lab.
It’s a well-established structure, but when research is contested, it raises a difficult question: Who is to blame? When reporting earlier this year on claims of image manipulation and other wrongdoing relating to research in Tessier-Lavigne’s group as well as researchers at other schools, STAT posed that inquiry to Stanford faculty and students. Depending on who you asked, there were different answers.
Graduate students emphasized that teachers should ultimately be responsible for issues with the science performed under their supervision because they have no qualms leveraging work done in their labs to obtain funds, win prizes, and boost their reputation.
Faculty generally concur, at least in theory, but are sometimes quick to point out that they can only investigate the work of their lab to a certain extent and that collaborative science is in part built on trust. It’s a defence Tessier-Lavigne himself used to support his resignation.
He also stated that it wasn’t a good enough one.