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Harvard Psychology Researcher Committed Fraud, U.S. Investigation Concludes

Former Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser fabricated and falsified data and made false statements about experimental methods in six federally funded studies, according to a report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Hauser, who resigned from his Harvard faculty position in 2011 after an internal investigation found him responsible for research misconduct, wrote in a statement that although he has "fundamental differences" with some of the new report's findings, "I acknowledge that I made mistakes." He did not admit deliberate misconduct, however, and implied that his mistake was that he "tried to do too much" and "let important details get away from my control."

"The ORI report brings closure to a process that has taken a long time to unfold," writes Gerry Altmann in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. A psychologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom, Altmann is editor of Cognition, one of the journals that published—and later retracted—some of Hauser's suspect research. "It is sad that Hauser still will not admit to the charges that have been found against him when he does appear to nonetheless accept that the evidence exists and is legitimate."

Hauser's work in humans and monkeys probed the biological roots of cognition and morality. He was an especially popular professor among undergraduates, and his provocative ideas attracted many collaborators as well as frequent media attention. He was a prolific scientist, in recent years averaging about one peer-reviewed article per month. But his work fell under a cloud in 2007, when members of his laboratory brought concerns about his research conduct to Harvard officials, instigating a 3-year internal investigation.

In August 2010, The Boston Globe broke the news that Harvard had found Hauser solely responsible for eight instances of scientific misconduct. University officials confirmed the reports but did not provide further details. Harvard's silence left researchers studying animal cognition wondering which of Hauser's hundreds of published studies might be tainted. In the wake of the investigation, in 2010 Hauser announced he was taking a year's academic leave. In July 2011, he resigned his position at Harvard.

In the report released yesterday, ORI identified six instances in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in research funded by the National Institutes of Health. Specifically:

  • In a study of learning in cotton-top tamarins that was published in the journal Cognition in 2002 (and retracted in 2010, amid allegations of misconduct), Hauser published fabricated data in a bar graph that ostensibly compared the monkeys' responses before and after they habituated to sound patterns.
  • In two unpublished experiments testing cotton-top tamarins' responses to strings of consonants and vowels, Hauser recorded false values for some of the monkeys' responses, creating the appearance of statistically significant results. This research was never written up for publication.
  • In versions of a manuscript for a study that was eventually published in Cognition (but first submitted to and rejected by other journals), Hauser provided false descriptions of the methods used to code monkey behavior and falsified results in a way that supported his theoretical predictions. Hauser and his collaborators corrected these problems before the study was published, so the published study accurately describes the research.
  • In a study of how well rhesus monkeys comprehend human gestures, which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2007, Hauser falsely reported methods and results of one of seven experiments. Hauser and one of his colleagues published a replication of this experiment in 2011.
  • A study published in Science in 2007 contained a false statement about distinctive markings on some cotton-top tamarins in the experiment, masking the possibility that some monkeys could have been tested more than once. Hauser accepted responsibility for this statement. He and a co-author replicated these findings and published them in Science in 2011.
  •  In an experiment involving rhesus monkeys that was never written up for publication, Hauser falsely changed coding results such that the altered results fit the theoretical prediction.

The ORI report states that Hauser "neither admits nor denies committing research misconduct but accepts ORI has found evidence of research misconduct." For the next 3 years, any research he conducts using U.S. Public Health Service funds must be done under supervision and must be certified as legitimate by the institution that employs him. He also cannot serve as a peer reviewer or in any other advisory capacity to Public Health Service during that period.

Some scientists who have publicly defended Hauser in the past continue to do so. Psychologist Bennett Galef of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, reviewed the evidence concerning some of the charges against Hauser during Harvard's investigation, at Hauser's lawyers' request. He says he saw no clear evidence of wrongdoing on Hauser's part then, and remains unconvinced, especially by evidence of misconduct in connection with studies that are unpublished. "It's conceivable, after all, that someone would feel tempted to do something with their data and then realize what they'd done and say, 'That was a mistake and I just won't publish it,' " Galef says. "How can you get somebody in such trouble over something that they didn't publish? I just don't understand that."

Other scientists vehemently disagree. In his e-mail to ScienceInsider, Altmann writes: "Even if the ONLY transgression was the fabrication in Cognition, the field would consider that totally unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. The fact that he has misled collaborators in unpublished studies shows that this is a recurring pattern of behavior. This was not a raw deal. It was fully deserved and he brought it upon himself."

Jenny Saffran, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who co-authored a paper with Hauser in 2008 and later learned that that paper had been implicated in the misconduct investigation, also disagrees with Galef. "Unfortunately, at least in the case that I'm familiar with, a paper was actually submitted for publication to multiple journals with data that the ORI report shows were manipulated," Saffran says. "So it's not the case that he corrected all errors before submitting papers for publication."

The full text of Marc Hauser's Wednesday (5 September) statement:

The release of the ORI report concludes an investigation into my scientific conduct that has lasted five years. This has been a long and painful period for me, my family, friends and colleagues. To all who have been burdened by this, I send my sincere apologies. To those who have supported me, I am deeply grateful.

The investigation process required me to review, analyze and respond to questions concerning significant amounts of data, manuscripts, grant applications, and personal correspondences covering more than ten years.

Although I have fundamental differences with some of the findings in the ORI report, I acknowledge that I made mistakes. I tried to do too much, teaching courses, running a large lab of students, sitting on several editorial boards, directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard, conducting multiple research collaborations, and writing for the general public. 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. I am saddened that this investigation has caused some to question all of my work, rather than the few papers and unpublished studies in question. Before, during and after the investigation, many of my lab's research findings were replicated by independent researchers. I remain proud of the many important papers generated by myself, my collaborators and my students over the years. I am also deeply gratified to see my students carve out significant areas of research at major universities around the world.

I am relieved that this investigation is now complete, allowing me to turn my full energy to the next chapter of my career. Over the past year, I have blended my passion for teaching, science and humanitarian efforts to give back to those in need, focusing on at-risk youth. This work is deeply satisfying and I look forward to making new contributions to human welfare, education, and the role of scientific knowledge in understanding human nature.