Marc Hauser’s Return

Professor of psychology Marc Hauser will be returning to Harvard this fall—but not to teaching. At a psychology department meeting this spring, “a large majority” of the faculty voted against allowing him to teach courses in the coming academic year, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) spokesman Jeff Neal.

Hauser, who studies animal cognition as a window into the evolution of the human mind, has been on a yearlong leave of absence after a faculty investigating committee found him “solely responsible” for eight instances of scientific misconduct. The University has never said whether Hauser’s leave was related to the questions about his research. (Last summer, his automatic e-mail response said he was on leave to work on a book, Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad; that title is still forthcoming, reports the publisher, Viking Penguin.)

The courses he was scheduled to teach in 2011-2012, “Origins of Evil” and “Hot Topics in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience,” were canceled, said Morss professor of psychology Susan Carey, the department chair. She said the department exercised what power it could; it cannot control whether Hauser advises students or conducts research. Neal said the psychology faculty vote effectively means that Hauser cannot teach in other Harvard departments or faculties, either.

Carey said she was troubled by the fact that the University had released so little information about the case against Hauser: “Harvard has not told us what he was found guilty of, what the evidence was, what the sanctions were.” In light of this incident, an FAS committee is considering the procedures involved in such investigations, asking whether they properly balance transparency with concern for the privacy of scholars accused of misconduct.

Last August, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith said five of the eight counts related to studies that “either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication.” For the three counts that related to published work, Smith provided citations for the articles, and said, “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.”

Of the three published papers, one, a 2002 Cognition article, was retracted. Hauser (who has repeatedly declined interview requests) notified another journal, the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, in June 2010 that the video records and field notes that supported a 2007 finding published there “were found to be incomplete” for two of the experimental conditions. He and a colleague returned to the Puerto Rican island where the experiment had taken place and re-ran those parts of the experiment; the new findings replicated the old.

The journal that published the third paper, Science, offered more detail about the 2007 article it printed. A coauthor notified the journal in June 2010 that field notes on rhesus monkeys—one of three species involved in the study—were missing. Those notes had been handwritten by a research assistant, and discarded after each day’s results were “tallied and reported to [the lead author] over e-mail or by phone,” the journal said. In this case, too, the researchers returned to the site (the same Puerto Rican island) and repeated the experiment; again, the results matched the earlier findings.

The charges leveled against Hauser suggest that his transgressions went beyond mere sloppiness: the “Grey Book” (the document that sets forth FAS policies governing research, instruction, and other professional activities) defines research misconduct as falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism. The fact that two of the studies were not retracted altogether means that “neither of these journals can believe that there was credible evidence of falsification or fabrication,” says Carey.

Hauser’s peers are split on whether the research practices described in the Science correction, and the missing data cited by the other two journals, should have been deemed misconduct by this definition. “At Harvard you’re expected to run a huge lab and be collaborating with people all over the place,” said Bennett Galef, a psychologist who studies social learning in animals at McMaster University in Canada. “You have very little control over what’s going on on a day-to-day basis.” In his lab, says Galef, “I see every piece of data every day as it’s coming in. But if you have 20 students, you can’t do that.”

Gordon Gallup, a psychology professor at the State University of New York-Albany (and a previous critic of Hauser’s work), disagreed. “The principal investigator has to take primary responsibility” for vouching for the experiment results, and to do that, he said, that investigator has to have direct knowledge of “all of the evidence and all of the procedures and all of the technicalities.”

Carey has collaborated with Hauser on three papers herself; that work “was extremely carefully done, and carefully done partly because of Marc’s involvement,” she said. “I had no inkling of any of these problems.”

If there is a finding against Hauser by a federal funding body, more details may emerge. These agencies do not, as a rule, discuss open investigations, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity told the Boston Globe that the office is investigating Hauser; Smith said last year that Harvard was also cooperating with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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