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“Morality” Professor Responsible for Research Misconduct

“Morality” Professor Responsible for Research Misconduct

Harvard professor, Marc Hauser, PhD—whose views on the evolution of morality have been widely accepted by many psychiatrists and others—was recently found by a university investigating committee to be "solely responsible for 8 instances of scientific misconduct."

Hauser, a professor of psychology, biology, anthropology, and neurosciences, has codirected Harvard's interdisciplinary Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative (MBB) and written Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong, in which he posits that humans have evolved a universal moral instinct that unconsciously propels us to deliver judgments of right and wrong. But on August 20, Michael D. Smith, dean of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), in a faculty letter told colleagues that after a 3-year investigation, a committee of "qualified, tenured faculty" found evidence of misconduct with respect to 3 published studies and 5 other studies that were never published or in which the problems were corrected before publication.1

For the studies reviewed, Smith said, "There were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results." On the basis of the findings of the committee, he moved to have the record cor-rected for those papers.

The 2002 paper published in Cognition—"Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins," which examined whether monkeys can extract abstract algebraic rules as infants do—has been retracted. The retraction, published this month, said that the "the data do not support the reported findings. The authors are therefore retracting this article. MH [Marc Hauser] accepts responsibility for the error."

Gerry Altmann, PhD, Cognition's current editor in chief, was asked by Psychiatric Times whether Hauser's being an associate editor of the journal at the time the article was published could have influenced the acceptance process. Altmann replied, "It is true that Hauser was an associate editor, but my assumption, knowing my predecessor as I do, is that he took no part whatsoever in the reuse process." Altmann noted, "We, in fact, ‘blind' associate editors to their own papers. To do otherwise would compromise the review process."

Altmann, a psycholinguist at the University of York in the UK, said he read over the paper by Hauser and colleagues2 "very carefully," and as written, "it is a fine paper that was published appropriately."

"The problem, to put it simply, is that the data reported in that paper have been found to have no basis in any of the videotaped records of the study," he said. "Peer review could not have determined that. . . . We rely, therefore, on the integrity of scientists, and the fact that ‘other' scientists will attempt replication and extension (another form of peer review). The issue here is not about journal practices or peer review. It is about a scientist who committed misconduct and apparently cut corners by misrepresenting and either fabricating or falsifying data."

Meanwhile, a 2007 paper, "Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent," published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, has been corrected. Hauser and his coauthors write that the field notes and video records from the study were found to be "incomplete," leading 2 of the authors, Hauser and Justin Wood, PhD, now assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, to return to an island off Puerto Rico to repeat the experiments. "The new data match the previously reported results," they write.3

The fate of the third article, "The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates," published in Science in 2007, is still uncertain.4 Ginger Pinholster, a spokesperson for the journal's publisher, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that Justin Wood, first author of the paper, had on June 27 written that Harvard had completed its investigation and found there was not enough record keeping (eg, no field notes, no records of aborted trials, and no subject identification information related to the rhesus monkey experiments). Wood and Hauser had rerun all the experiments and submitted new supporting data.

The new data supplied by Wood and Hauser have been sent out for independent peer review and "we are waiting for the reviews" before taking action, Pinholster told Psychiatric Times. Some actions that could be taken by the journal include publishing a clarification, expression of concern, or a full retraction.

Federal investigations

Some of Hauser and colleagues' research was supported by federal funds, Smith said, so Harvard's investigating committee's report and other supplemental material were submitted to the federal offices responsible for their own review—the Public Health Service's Office of Research Integrity (PHS ORI), the National Science Foundation's Office of Inspector General (NSF OIG), and the US Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Christina Diorio-Sterling, spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office, could not confirm or deny that an investigation is under way, explaining, "The only time an investigation becomes public is when the person is publicly charged."

The NSF OIG and the PHS ORI also will not confirm or deny they are investigating Hauser, but they have punitive actions available if they find an individual engaged in research misconduct. According to the NSF OIG, research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing or performing research funded by the NSF, reviewing research proposals submitted to the NSF, or in reporting research results funded by the NSF. Sanctions available can include reprimand, restricting or terminating grants, requiring completion of an ethics class, or debarment.

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