Collateral damage


    An investigation at Harvard University highlights the human cost of scientific misconduct.

    In the dark story of Marc Hauser, the evolutionary psychologist who was last week revealed to have committed scientific misconduct, there is perhaps one bright light: the courage of the young researchers who alerted the university to their concerns over how the professor was interpreting his data.

    Hauser is a star in his field and an intellectual celebrity. Members of his lab at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took a huge professional risk to raise complaints against such a formidable figure.

    Graduate students and postdocs are often in the best position to witness misconduct. Unfortunately, their careers are also the most vulnerable to collateral damage from such transgressions, particularly when the accused is a mentor. A young scientist's reputation is tethered to the successes and failures of his or her adviser, and when that adviser is accused of misconduct, trainees can also be viewed with suspicion.

    The dozens of graduates and postdocs who have passed through Hauser's hands now face an uncertain future. Some have had to switch labs. Others are ready to look for faculty positions, but don't know how to explain their status to hiring committees. Should they openly discuss Harvard's three-year investigation? Some are new faculty members anxiously applying for grants. How should they list their publications with Hauser? When will it be safe for them to submit papers co-authored with him? These are the dilemmas that play out behind the headlines in nearly every misconduct case.

    In the days following the first reports of the Hauser investigation in mid-August, Harvard's refusal to release its findings only increased the pressure on these young scientists. The university offered no clues as to whether other researchers or publications would be implicated.

    Fortunately, the silence did not last, and on Friday Harvard released a summary of the conclusions reached by its internal investigation. The report found problems with the way that Hauser, whose work connects the observed behaviour of non-human primates to the evolution of key human characteristics such as morality, handled data and reported results. The university's statement stressed that Hauser alone was responsible for the eight instances of misconduct uncovered, and listed only three papers tarnished by the discovery.

    Harvard had been pummelled in the press for its reticence, but it is common and sometimes necessary for universities to sit on the results of internal misconduct investigations. This is particularly true when the case is complex — as they often are — and the findings subject to challenge, or when other researchers have been implicated. Indeed, the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which monitors investigations of researchers who are funded by the National Institutes of Health, asks institutions not to make their investigations public until the ORI has completed its own assessment. This can delay a verdict for weeks or even years after the university completes its own investigation.

    There is a practical reason for this secrecy: if the ORI needs to convene a hearing, the office does not want potential witnesses to be tainted by exposure to prior conclusions.

    In this case, following two weeks of pressure from scientists and the press, Harvard was right to release key details of its investigation ahead of schedule. The move does not entirely lift the burden on Hauser's young associates, but it can perhaps ease their load until a full account of his misconduct is brought to light.

    Such relief is a welcome reward. At a laboratory where there are now question marks over both animal and human behaviour, the young researchers acted as true scientists should.

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    Collateral damage. Nature 466, 1023 (2010).

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