Scientific Community Reacts to Report of "Misconduct"

In the days after the Boston Globe reported that "evidence of scientific misconduct" was found in a psychology professor's lab, commenters urge Harvard and the scholar himself to explain.

Updated August 13

in the days after the Boston Globe reported that a Harvard investigation turned up "evidence of scientific misconduct" in professor of psychology Marc Hauser's lab, the newspaper's editorial board urged the University, or Hauser himself, to release more details about the investigation and its results; Hauser's scientific colleagues echoed the call for an explanation.

The journal Cognition will print a retraction of a 2002 paper that listed Hauser as the lead author, but the retraction will say only that the study data did not support the reported findings. "Scientific data can be compromised by problems ranging from mismeasurement to misinterpretation to outright fabrication," the Globe said in a staff editorial. "Other scholars who have relied on Hauser’s work deserve to know what part of it, if any, still holds up."

A 2007 paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B has also been corrected, due to missing field notes, and the journal Science is examining a 2007 paper coauthored by Hauser, the Globe reported August 13. A day earlier, the Globe reported that the investigation began three years ago when graduate students in Hauser's lab raised concerns about possible misconduct. And on August 13, the New York Times published an account of the investigation based on interviews with Hauser's colleagues. The University has not confirmed those details.

Cognition editor Gerry Altmann, a psychology professor at the University of York in England, said he was not given any details about the investigation or its findings beyond what was said in the retraction, which Hauser personally contacted him to request. The study in question found that cotton-top tamarin monkeys could recognize patterns in language. "As written, the data appear to support the conclusions in the paper," Altmann wrote in an e-mail. "Thus, no procedures at the journal could have prevented publication of this paper—by any standards, it was a good paper. But the data reported in the paper are...a summary of the raw data...and so I assume that the problem here is that the raw data do not match the summary." The University owes it to the academic community to explain more about what happened, Altmann said: "If Harvard has evidence of misconduct in this case, it would be very serious if they did not reveal this."

An article published August 11 in the New Scientist says more about the significance of the retracted findings, which had implications for understanding human evolution and the capacity for language learning. And it quotes other colleagues of Hauser's, including Michael Tomasello, a specialist in chimpanzee cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany:

"Marc Hauser's rights are being protected. Harvard's rights are being protected Who's looking out for the scientific community? We're in a quandary."

and Howard Gardner, Harvard's Hobbs professor of cognition and education:

"Keeping proceedings secret simply produces rumours, and, in the era of blogging, these can be wild."

A University spokesman at first declined to say anything specific about Hauser, saying only that if there had been a review of faculty conduct, all details of that review would be confidential. But on August 12 the spokesman, Jeff Neal, released this statement:

Harvard has always taken seriously its obligation to maintain the integrity of the scientific record.  The University has rigorous systems in place to evaluate concerns about scientific work by Harvard faculty members.  Those procedures were employed in Dr. Hauser’s situation.  As a result of that process, and in accordance with standard practice, Harvard has taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser. While Dr. Hauser (or in one instance, his colleague) were directed to explain the issues with these articles to the academic journals that published those papers, the University has also welcomed specific questions from the editors involved. We will continue to assist the editors in this process.

In these types of cases, Harvard follows federal requirements for investigating alleged research misconduct and reports its findings, as required, to the appropriate federal funding agencies, which conduct their own review.   At the conclusion of the federal investigatory process, in cases where the government concludes scientific misconduct occurred, the federal agency makes those findings publicly available.

Hauser's curriculum vitae, still posted on the Internet at this writing, lists a home phone number that has been disconnected. There was no answer at his lab phone, and a recorded message on his office phone announced he would be on leave for the coming year and that the machine would not be accepting messages. His e-mail account sent an automated reply saying he would be working on his next book and would not be checking e-mail regularly. The Globe reported that Hauser, when reached, referred questions to the Harvard administration.

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