A while back Marc Hauser, a psychology professsor at Harvard, was accused of research misconduct, which included selective use of or even fabrication of data. I suspended judgment until an official University investigation found Hauser guilty of eight instances of scientific misconduct. Harvard suspended Hauser for a year, not allowing him to teach, and he subsequently resigned from the university. Since then he’s been working with at-risk teenagers.
Hauser’s work aimed at discerning the roots of human behavior, cognition, morality, and communication in monkeys. He was widely known for this work and wrote several popular and technical books. We chose him to be one of the three plenary speakers at the University of Chicago’s Darwin Day conference in 2009.
Since Hauser did the fabricated and/or flawed research using federal grant money, there was more to come, for government agencies are by law required to investigate. As boston,com reports, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the U.S. Public Health Service (which runs the National Institutes of Health) has given a final report on the accusations that Hauser engaged in research misconduct.
You can download the ORI’s report here; it’s a short 8 pages long, but shows that the investigators went through his research records thoroughly, looking at every graph and data point and comparing them with the original data from tapes of monkey behavior and their transcriptions. Four grants were involved in the dubious research.
Among the finding were that Hauser:
- Fabricated data and also misrepresented data in graphs
- Falsified the coding of monkey behavior observed in trials
- Misrepresented how data were coded in a paper
- Misrepresented (apparently through fabrication) sample sizes of some behavioral responses in two papers
- Gave false statements about the number of monkeys identifiable by their markings
- Produced statistically significant results (when they actually weren’t) by fabricating new coding for data previously coded by a research assistant
This resulted in one paper being retracted and two corrected. Errors were also found in work that Hauser’s lab hadn’t published. Hauser will not admit deliberate misconduct, but made this statement,
“Although I have fundamental differences with some of the findings,” Hauser wrote, “I acknowledge that I made mistakes. … I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made within the lab, whether or not I was directly involved.”
To give you an idea of the depth of the investigation, here’s a brief extract from the report:
Respondent published fabricated data in Figure 2 of the paper Hauser, M.D., Weiss, D., & Marcus, G. “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins.” Cognition 86:B15-B22, 2002, which reported data on experiments designed to determine whether tamarin monkeys habituated to a sound pattern consisting of three sequential syllables (for example AAB) would then distinguish a different sound pattern (i.e., ABB). Figure 2 is a bar graph showing results obtained with 14 monkeys exposed either to the same or different sound patterns than they were habituated to. Because the tamarins were never exposed to the same sound pattern after habituation, half of the data in the graph was fabricated. Figure 2 is also false because the actual height of the bars for the monkeys purportedly receiving the same test pattern that they had been habituated to totaled 16 animals (7.14 subjects as responding and 8.87 subjects as non-responding).
What amazes me is the leniency of the “punishment.” Making data up is the primary sin that a scientist can commit. I expected that, at the least, Hauser would be banned from ever receiving federal grant money. He also ran the chance of going to jail. But what did the ORI do? Virtually nothing: a slap on the wrist. Hauser can still apply for federal grant money, but he must do so by submitting ancillary statements from himself and the university that his research will be supervised for accuracy and, when completed, be given an imprimatur of validity by his university. He also won’t be allowed to serve as a consultant or member of federal grant panels, which is not really a punishment at all:
Respondent neither admits nor denies committing research misconduct but accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct as set forth above and has entered into a Voluntary Settlement Agreement to resolve this matter. The settlement is not an admission of liability on the part of the Respondent. Dr. Hauser has voluntarily agreed for a period of three years, beginning on August 9, 2012:
(1) to have any U.S. Public Health Service (PHS)-supported research supervised; Respondent agreed that prior to the submission of an application for PHS support for a research project on which the Respondent’s participation is proposed and prior to Respondent’s participation in any capacity on PHS-supported research, Respondent shall ensure that a plan for supervision of Respondent’s duties is submitted to ORI for approval; the supervision plan must be designed to ensure the scientific integrity of Respondent’s research contribution; Respondent agreed that he shall not participate in any PHS-supported research until such a supervision plan is submitted to and approved by ORI; Respondent agreed to maintain responsibility for compliance with the agreed upon supervision plan;
(2) that any institution employing him shall submit, in conjunction with each 8 application for PHS funds, or report, manuscript, or abstract involving PHS- supported research in which Respondent is involved, a certification to ORI that the data provided by Respondent are based on actual experiments or are otherwise legitimately derived, that the data, procedures, and methodology are accurately reported in the application, report, manuscript, or abstract, and that the text in such submissions is his own or properly cites the source of copied language and ideas; and
(3) to exclude himself voluntarily from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant.
Frankly, I am both puzzled and appalled that such a light punishment was levied for such severe misconduct. This won’t serve as much of a deterrent to research fraud. However, Hauser did lose an academic plum in the process: his job at Harvard. And his research—if he continues it—will be forever under a pall of doubt.