Harvard Confirms Scientific Misconduct by Marc Hauser

I am sad to report that it is indeed confirmed by official sources that primatologist Marc Hauser engaged in several instances of what is being termed misconduct while carrying out experiments in his lab.

Dean Michael Smith issued the following letter to members of the Harvard community today:

Dear faculty colleagues,

No dean wants to see a member of the faculty found responsible for scientific misconduct, for such misconduct strikes at the core of our academic values. Thus, it is with great sadness that I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards. The investigation was governed by our long-standing policies on professional conduct and shaped by the regulations of federal funding agencies. After careful review of the investigating committee’s confidential report and opportunities for Professor Hauser to respond, I accepted the committee’s findings and immediately moved to fulfill our obligations to the funding agencies and scientific community and to impose appropriate sanctions.

Harvard, like every major research institution, takes a finding of scientific misconduct extremely seriously and imposes consequential sanctions on individuals found to have committed scientific misconduct. Rigid adherence to the scientific method and scrupulous attention to the integrity of research results are values we expect in every one of our faculty, students, and staff.

In brief, when allegations of scientific misconduct arise, the FAS Standing Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) is charged with beginning a process of inquiry into the allegations. The inquiry phase is followed by an investigation phase that is conducted by an impartial committee of qualified, tenured faculty (the investigating committee), provided that the dean, advised by the CPC, believes the allegations warrant further investigation. The work of the investigating committee as well as its final report are considered confidential to protect both the individuals who made the allegations and those who assisted in the investigation. Our investigative process will not succeed if individuals do not have complete confidence that their identities can be protected throughout the process and after the findings are reported to the appropriate agencies. Furthermore, when the allegations concern research involving federal funding, funding agency regulations govern our processes during the investigation and our obligations after our investigation is complete. (For example, federal regulations impose an ongoing obligation to protect the identities of those who provided assistance to the investigation.) When the investigation phase is complete, the investigating committee produces a confidential report describing their activity and their findings. The response of the accused to this report and the report itself are considered by the dean, who then decides whether to accept the findings, and in the case of a finding of misconduct, determine the sanctions that are appropriate. This entire and extensive process was followed in the current case.

Since some of the research in the current case was supported by federal funds, the investigating committee’s report and other supplemental material were submitted to the federal offices responsible for their own review, in accordance with federal regulations and FAS procedures. Our usual practice is not to publicly comment on such cases, one reason being to ensure the integrity of the government’s review processes.

A key obligation in a scientific misconduct case is to correct any affected publications, and our confidentiality policies do not conflict with this obligation. In this case, after accepting the findings of the committee, I immediately moved to have the record corrected for those papers that were called into question by the investigation. The committee’s report indicated that three publications needed to be corrected or retracted, and this is now a matter of public record. To date, the paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,”Cognition 86, B15-B22 (2002) has been retracted because the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings; and a correction was published to the paper, “Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 1913-1918 (2007). The authors continue to work with the editors of the third publication, “The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates,” Science 317, 1402-1405 (2007). As we reported to one of these editors, the investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. 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.

Beyond these responsibilities to the funding agencies and the scientific community, Harvard considers confidential the specific sanctions applied to anyone found responsible for scientific misconduct. However, to enlighten those unfamiliar with the available sanctions, options in findings of scientific misconduct include involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research. To ensure compliance with the imposed sanctions, those within Harvard with oversight of the affected activities are informed of the sanctions that fall within their administrative responsibilities.

As should be clear from this letter, I have a deeply rooted faith in our process and the shared values upon which it is founded. Nonetheless, it is healthy to review periodically our long-standing practices. Consequently, I will form a faculty committee this fall to reaffirm or recommend changes to the communication and confidentiality practices associated with the conclusion of cases involving allegations of professional misconduct. To be clear, I will ask the committee to consider our policies covering all professional misconduct cases and not comment solely on the current scientific misconduct case.

In summary, Harvard has completed its investigation of the several allegations in the current case and does not anticipate making any additional findings, statements, or corrections to the scientific record with respect to those allegations. This does not mean, however, that others outside Harvard have completed their reviews. In particular, Harvard continues to cooperate with all federal inquiries into this matter by the PHS Office of Research Integrity, the NSF Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Respectfully yours,

Michael D. Smith

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

This statement conforms almost exactly to what I had come to learn of the situation. It is very important to note that Harvard has found Hauser solely responsible. None of the undergraduates, graduate students, or post docs who worked in that lab are implicated by this report, and to my knowledge, in any other way.

I did trust Marc. I even invented a phenomenon to explain what others thought might be an anomaly. Now, I feel rather personally betrayed, which is of no consequence. What is really important is that this is a demonstration of science’s self correcting process. And not.

This is an embarrassment and a kick in the teeth. Never mind the research. We will adjust one way or another what we think about what monkeys can do (and can’t do) as more (valid) research is done, and the occasional bad research (of whatever kind that may be) is rooted out and discarded. There is a different, larger problem.

We are very much engaged in a culture war these days, as all readers of this blog know. Having one of our own … a well respected and well funded scientist … create this sort of situation is exactly the opposite of what is needed. Yes, yes, we can keep telling others and ourselves that this just proves that science is self correcting. That is true. But it also proves that the hubris and selfishness of one person can do more in the form of damage than an entire productive career can do in the way of building of our collective credibility.

I’m sorry, Marc, but I’ve got my pitchfork, and I’m pretty much ready to drive you into the swamp. This was not a misstep or a weak moment, or a single regrettable event. This was several years across several projects, seemingly key to what you were doing in that lab with all that funding and all those students. I know your friends and colleagues who are close to you feel very badly about what you are going through. But in my mind, a combination of institutional shadow and personal privilege are likely to combine to keep you from the punishment you probably deserve. You just made our life harder, and I refer here to those of us in the public trenches fighting for science.

ResearchBlogging.orgIn theory, you can repent and make up for this and I can forgive. But I do not believe you have what it takes to do so.

Marc, if you ever read this, I have a question for you. Where do morals come from? Where? I’m waiting to see your Darwin 2009 video on that topic appear on Uncommon Descent and other creationist web sites. Forget the monkey research. You’ve set us back years.

One of the key papers discredited by this report:

Hauser, M. (2002). Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins Cognition, 86 (1) DOI: 10.1016/S0010-0277(02)00139-7

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23 thoughts on “Harvard Confirms Scientific Misconduct by Marc Hauser

  1. So sad and his actions were unnecessary. As Greg says, others will also suffer the consequences when they had no part in the misconduct.

  2. “It is very important to note that Harvard has found Hauser solely responsible. None of the undergraduates, graduate students, or post docs who worked in that lab are implicated by this report.”

    I hate to even consider additional allegations in this sad affair – but is it really realistic to think, that absolutely none of his co-researchers knew anything about this – seemingly systematic – misconduct?

  3. Several of them knew about it. That is why we know about it. I’m not comfortable going beyond that, but you can imagine a number of scenarios in which students try to do something and then they can’t do it, then it gets taken out of their hands, etc.

    The students saved the day here. The peer reviewed process shined a suspicious light on some of the work, but it was the students who saved the day.

  4. I’m sure they all had some idea, and may have even turned him in. They had to have noticed that things didnt add up, if they were involved even slightly in the analysis and publication of the “data”.

    Even if his students and postdocs are held blameless, this will destroy their careers. Any data they have collected so far will be considered tainted, and will be viewed with suspicion. I suspect many of them will be forced to join another lab and start over, pretending they never worked for him when they eventually enter the job market. His letters of recommendation are now a curse.

  5. There is no reason to view the students who worked in his lab with suspicion, or to consider their careers tainted.

    In an ideal world, there would be no reason to impeach the students for the actions of their advisor. If the questions of lengthy stay in graduate school or gap in publication record came up during a job search, they could point to Dr. Hauser as an explanation, everybody would nod and say “Of course”, and their lives would go on little changed from how they would be if Dr. Hauser hadn’t cheated.

    In the real world, the market for academic jobs is tight (at least in the fields I am familiar with, and I have no reason to think Dr. Hauser’s field is different), so the people who look at job applications will only see the lengthy stay in graduate school or gap in publication record, compare them to other applications which lack these handicaps, and never give the former Hauser student/postdoc that second look. That’s especially true for any student or postdoc whose publication record as a member of Hauser’s lab may have just been vaporized.

    That’s what happened in other misconduct cases I am familiar with where the miscreant was a professor or staff scientist. There was no fallout for their collaborators with comparable or more seniority, but it was a different story for the innocent students and postdocs, not just in the offending group but in other groups where people wasted time trying to build on results that were fake to begin with. None of Jan Hendrik Schön’s collaborators suffered any ill effects from putting their names on papers that were later retracted, but several students and postdocs whose advisors put them on projects trying to replicate or build on the work ended up leaving the field, and a junior Bell Labs staffer who questioned the work (before it was found to be fake) was penalized for it on her annual evaluation for not being a “team player”. (I recently read E. S. Reich’s book on the Schön case, so I’m familiar with those details.)

  6. While it is true, as Eric Lund says, that mere delay can be very damaging to academic careers, I believe Harvard is doing its best to find new placements for the affected students and fellows. Let’s hope they succeed quickly.

    That said, the most serious damage is not to these individuals, most of whom we can hope will rebound, but to the cause of science. Evolutionary psychology is just about the most sensitive subject there is when it comes to the war with unreason. This fumbles the ball right into the hands of Ken Ham and his ilk.

  7. You say the Hauser affair shows that science is self-correcting, and certainly science was corrected in this instance. However I think far more cases of misconduct go undiscovered than are caught. The absolute number of cases discovered is extremely small, especially relative to the significant proportion of scientists who in anonymous polls admit to misconduct.
    We must increase the deterrence of this kind of behavior by making it easier for other scientists to scrutinize work. For example, there’s no reason why in Hauser’s field the original videotapes are not provided when the paper is submitted and posted online when the paper is published (more on this here: http://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/are-most-scientific-results-replicated/ )

  8. Is Harvard now digging deeper by doing a formal root cause analysis? Do universities do them?

    It would examine the situation differently than the investigation that uncovered the wrong doing and the person responsible. There may be a string of circumstances, which might look unrelated to the misconduct, but when taken together, are a major weakness. I am not shifting blame away from Marc Hauser, he is responsible for his actions, I’m saying there may be conditions that make misconduct more likely.

    I have no knowledge of the workings of a university lab, so forgive me if this is a routine thing they do.

  9. For those who are worried about the fallout to his students, I can say with close personal knowledge that most people found out pretty quickly what was going on after the investigation started (they *did* raid the lab after all) and that people have had some time to look after their careers. I know of a few people who have directly suffered and I’m sure at least a couple more will as well, but I think for the most part most of his students/post-docs suffered a hiccup and that’s all. Partly this also has to do with the fact that many people in the field in and out of his lab have, for years, had the impression he valued getting results and getting them published quickly more than a slow but ultimately correct process of doing science. This is not to say the majority of his lab knew he performed actual misconduct, but his grad students and post-docs who valued producing science carefully kept their data close to their vests and forced him to go at or near their pace.

  10. This is weird, just now, I turned the pages of “Moral Minds” and then saw this post. Should I read it or skip it? I don’t know what to do…


  11. SP, I still think it’s worth a read. Just because his science (at least some of it) sucked, doesn’t mean his theories are all bunk. Most of Moral Minds cites research either done entirely by others or that has been replicated or built upon by other groups, so I think it still has a mostly solid foundation.

    Also, it seems like it’s just the communication stuff that had real issues with the conclusions. The action/omission papers with macaques that were amended are cited in some of Hauser’s morality stuff, but they were repeated with better record keeping and got identical results (under what one must assume was tremendous scrutiny). All the human Moral Sense Test stuff, the reciprocal altruism in monkeys, etc hasn’t been brought into question. (And a lot of that stuff wasn’t particularly novel anyhow, it’s been done before and since by others)

  12. Huh?
    Have you people ever REALLY looked at most research papers??
    So often, while the results might be perfectly statistically analysed, it is questionable just exactly WHAT they were measuring, whether what they were measuring had any bearing on what they were trying to prove, and then sometimes the ‘conclusions’ seem to be plucked from thin air.

    The whole thing seems to be more of a case of “Let’s get Hauser” than serious scientific analysis of his findings.

    Only if false information is included does ‘misconduct’ arise. Missing information and unfounded conclusions should have been picked up by the “peer” reviewers and the editors of the journals in which the papers were published.

    IF he bullies his students and co-workers then that is an entirely different matter, too!!

  13. Huh?
    Have you people ever REALLY looked at most research papers??
    So often, while the results might be perfectly statistically analysed, it is questionable just exactly WHAT they were measuring, whether what they were measuring had any bearing on what they were trying to prove, and then sometimes the ‘conclusions’ seem to be plucked from thin air.

    The whole thing seems to be more of a case of “Let’s get Hauser” than serious scientific analysis of his findings.

    Only if false information is included does ‘misconduct’ arise. Missing information and unfounded conclusions should have been picked up by the “peer” reviewers and the editors of the journals in which the papers were published.

    IF he bullies his students and co-workers then that is an entirely different matter, too!!

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