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Hauser Issues Statement

8.27.10

As investigations by federal funding agencies and the U.S. Attorney's office into research practices in professor of psychology Marc Hauser's lab apparently continue, Hauser issued a statement, published by the Boston Globe on August 20—the only public comment he has made about the matter. He has not responded to requests for comment from Harvard Magazine.

"I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university," Hauser, who is on leave this year, said, according to the Globe. "Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case."

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith reported last week that Hauser was found "solely responsible" for "eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards." The dean's statement cited one paper that had been retracted; another to which a correction had been published; and said Hauser and his colleagues "continue to work with" journal editors on a third. But the statement did not give details about the nature of the misconduct in each instance, instead saying that in general, "While different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.” Hauser revealed no additional details in his statement, saying:

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication.

On August 27, the editor of Cognition—the journal from which a 2002 paper was retracted—published a blog post offering his account of what happened. Hauser's work investigates animal behavior as a window into human evolution and the development of the human mind; the Cognition paper involved a study of cotton-top tamarin monkeys' ability to learn patterns.

The study was designed to expose the monkeys to one of two "grammars"—patterns of sequences of syllables—and then, in a second round, expose them to either the one they had already been exposed to, or the other one. If the monkeys who heard two different grammars showed more interest during the second round than the monkeys exposed twice to the same one, then the researchers could conclude that the monkeys noticed the difference between the two grammars—similar to human infants' response to novel stimuli.

But the editor, Gerry Altmann, wrote that he received access to the results of Harvard's investigation, and that data only existed for the monkeys exposed to the two different grammars. There were no data for the group of monkeys exposed twice to the same grammar—no indication that this part of the experiment took place, and therefore no basis for comparing the responses of the monkeys who heard the different grammars.

Altmann, a professor of psychology at York University in England, concludes:

Given that there is no evidence that the data, as reported, were in fact collected...and given that the reported data were subjected to statistical analyses to show how they supported the paper's conclusions, I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here, using data that appear to have been fabricated, to deceive the field into believing something for which there was in fact no evidence at all. This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic misconduct. However, this is just conjecture; I note that the investigation found no explanation for the discrepancy between what was found on the videotapes and what was reported in the paper. Perhaps, therefore, the data were not fabricated, and there is some hitherto undiscovered or undisclosed explanation. But I do assume that if the investigation had uncovered a more plausible alternative explanation (and I know that the investigation was rigorous to the extreme), it would not have found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct.

The Boston Globe first reported on August 10 that Hauser was on leave in the wake of an investigation into his laboratory. In the following days, his colleagues and the public called for more information about what happened, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the investigation began three years ago when research assistants and a graduate student raised questions about procedures in the lab.

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