“Morality” Professor Responsible for Research Misconduct

Oct 26, 2010

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.”

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learning by cotton-top tamarins," which examined whether monkeys can extract abstract algebraic rules as infants do-has been retracted.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.

Harvard has already taken some punitive actions. Without disclosing specifics, Smith reported in his faculty letter that he did "impose appropriate sanctions." Available sanctions, he said, can 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."

Following Smith's letter, Hauser released a statement in which he acknowledged that "I made some significant mistakes," learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab's research practices." He expressed hope that the "scientific community will now wait for the federal investigative agencies to make their final conclusions based on the material that they have available."5 Hauser has not responded to interview requests from Psychiatric Times.

Hauser is on leave from his teaching obligations at the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Science until July 1, 2011, but he was planning to teach Extension School courses, "Cognitive Evolution" and "The Moral Sense: From Genes to Law," this fall and spring. On August 30, however, he changed his mind, stating, "Because of the controversy surrounding the investigation, I have decided that the best thing for the students is that I not teach at the Extension School until things conclude with the case." He will, however, remain in charge of the Cognitive Evolution Lab with additional oversight imposed by FAS Dean Smith, according to The Harvard Crimson.6

Graduate and post-doctoral students were given the option of switching advisers or continuing their research under Hauser to avoid potential disruption to their careers.

"The lab is running experiments on the psychology of dogs, moral judgments in adults and economic decision making in children," Hauser said in an e-mail, quoted in The Harvard Crimson.

Other ramifications

Beyond the questions surrounding Hauser's conduct are concerns about the case's effects on Harvard and on the field.

In his faculty letter, Smith announced plans to form a faculty panel to review Harvard's policies for professional misconduct cases, particularly with regard to communication and confidentiality practices. As of press time, the panel has not been formed.

"Dean Smith is conferring with other university officials about the composition and scope of the proposed review," said FAS spokesman Jeff Neal.

A recent editorial in the Crimson noted that the action taken against Hauser by Harvard "illustrates that no one's work is immune to scrutiny or probing." It called for decisive action7: "Professor Hauser has been an innovator in his field and a popular lecturer while at Harvard, but if Dean Smith provides strong evidence that he intentionally fabricated scientific data, Hauser should be removed from the Faculty," the editorial said.

The editorial also commended former students who worked in Hauser's lab, for their courage. According to an August 19 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, former research assistants and graduate students concerned about the possibility of bogus data alerted Harvard's administrators.8

On a broader scale, the Crimson editorial said that "in the wake of an incident such as this, institutional review boards . . . should heighten their approach to checking methods that are controversial or extremely subtle. Professors at research universities are under constant pressure to publish their findings. If negative results are accepted as normal parts of the research process rather than symbols of failure and shame, perhaps researchers such as Hauser will feel less pressure to alter their results to be ‘right.'"

Alan Stone, MD, Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard, who works with Hauser in the MBB program, told Psychiatric Times that Harvard is in a difficult position, because Hauser has made many other important contributions to the field and is well liked and respected by all his colleagues.

"I personally think Harvard has a duty not just to do a thorough inquiry, but to respect his career and his other achievements," Stone said.

Asked about effects of the Harvard findings on the field, Altmann said, "The field will correct itself very quickly indeed."

"I believe his [Hauser's] work on morality is not tainted by this investigation, but his work on animals has been, and of course, he is tainted himself by this," Altmann said. "Science works through a system of trust backed up by replication and extension as a part of an extended peer review process that starts by peers commenting and advising on manuscripts submitted for publication and ends with peers replicating and extending the work published in those manuscripts. . . . I do not believe that trust in the field has been eroded by any of this. . . . I am confident that this was an isolated case and that the integrity of the field has been preserved."



1. FAS Dean Smith confirms scientific misconduct by Marc Hauser. Harvard Magazine. August 20, 2010. http://harvardmagazine.com/breaking-news/harvard-dean-details-hauser-scientific-misconduct. Accessed September 8, 2010.
2. Hauser MD, Weiss D, Marcus G. Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins. Cognition. 2002;86:B15-B22.
3. Hauser MD, Glynn D, Wood J. Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent. Proc Biol Sci. 2007;274:1913-1918.
4. Wood JN, Glynn DD, Phillips BC, Hauser MD. The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates. Science. 2007;317:1402-1405.
5. Harvard psychology professor Hauser’s statement. Boston.com. August 20, 2010. http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/08/20/statement_from_harvard_psychology_professor_hauser. Accessed September 8, 2010.
6. Newcomer EP, Srivatsa NN. Hauser maintains control of Harvard lab under supervision. Harvard Crimson. September 3, 2010. htp://www.thecrimson.com/article/2010/9/3/hauser-research-lab-psychology. Accessed September 8, 2010.
7. The Crimson Staff. Under the microscope: the investigation of Hauser provides lessons for the scientific community. Harvard Crimson. September 2, 2010. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2010/9/2/hauser-misconduct-research-scientific. Accessed September 8, 2010.
8. Bartlett T. Document sheds light on investigation at Harvard. Chronicle of Higher Education. August 19, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/Document-Sheds-Light-on/123988. Accessed September 8, 2010.