Harvard probe kept under wraps

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Researchers call for the release of findings of the Marc Hauser misconduct investigation.

Evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser’s research on primate cognition has been criticized. Credit: R. Friedman/Corbis

When news broke last week that famed Harvard University evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser had been investigated for scientific misconduct, it was no surprise to many in the field. Rumours had been flying for three years, ever since university officials arrived to snatch computers from Hauser's laboratory at the start of the inquiry. By the time Harvard completed its investigation in January, the gossip had become standard cocktail-hour fare at conferences. Now, after a Boston Globe story threw a sudden spotlight on the investigation, some researchers are voicing frustration with Harvard's refusal to release the details of its findings.

Hauser studies the evolution of key human characteristics, such as morality, language and mathematical ability, by tracing the origins of these traits in non-human primates. A popular professor and mentor, his research output has been diverse and prodigious, generating about one peer-reviewed paper per month for the past four years and forming the basis for popular articles, books and media appearances.

Now that allegations of misconduct have surfaced, those working in related areas are adamant that a full account of any problems with Hauser's published work is needed. "Scientists working in these areas, some of whom would like to build on Marc's results, need to know exactly which may have been the results of misconduct," says Robert Seyfarth, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of Hauser's graduate-school advisers. "Keeping things secret simply fuels rumours."

Some even worry that without additional details, the field as a whole could become tainted. "It is disastrous," says primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. "This is a very small field — if one prominent person is under suspicion, then everyone comes a little bit under suspicion."

Researchers close to those involved say that the Harvard investigation, launched after three of Hauser's graduate students became troubled by how he interpreted his data and reported their concerns to the university, has discovered eight instances of misconduct. Hauser, who has taken a one-year period of leave from Harvard, has not responded to requests for comment. Harvard will not discuss its investigation, but says the results have been reported to the two federal agencies that provide funding for Hauser's work. Both the National Science Foundation and the Office of Research Integrity at the National Institutes of Health, have declined to comment on the matter, but the practice in such cases is that findings are made public only if government officials conclude that a researcher has acted improperly.

“Keeping things secret simply fuels rumours. , ”

Harvard has also acknowledged that three of Hauser's publications have been singled out for correction. None is among his most influential, judging from citation data. One, a 2002 paper in Cognition1, is being retracted, says the journal's editor, Gerry Altmann of the University of York, UK. In the retraction letter, Hauser takes responsibility for the error, but fails to describe precisely what was wrong with the paper, which reports that cotton-top tamarins — diminutive New World monkeys with punk-rock hair — can learn to distinguish between different patterns of vowels and consonants, just as human infants do.

Meanwhile, a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society2, which demonstrates that rhesus monkeys living on an island off Puerto Rico can correctly read specific human gestures, has been corrected. In an addendum3 to the paper, Hauser and his co-authors write that field notes and video records from the study were found to be "incomplete", leading two of the authors, Hauser and Justin Wood, now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to return to the island to repeat the experiments. The new data match the previously reported results, they write.

The status of the third paper4, published in Science in 2007, is still up in the air, says Ginger Pinholster, a spokeswoman for the journal's publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC. On 27 June, Wood wrote to the journal to report that data for this paper were also missing. Wood and Hauser have submitted new data that are now under review, but the editorial team is uncomfortable about making a decision without knowing the full results of the Harvard investigation, Pinholster says.

Hauser had his share of critics even before the investigation began. In 1995, a paper from Hauser's group in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences5 caught the eye of evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany. The paper asserted that tamarins can recognize their reflection in a mirror rather than assuming that the reflection is another monkey. Gallup was intrigued — his earlier work6 had indicated that although chimpanzees could recognize themselves in a mirror, monkeys could not. He asked to see video footage of the experiment.

But when Gallup reviewed the tapes, he says he found no evidence of self-recognition. He published his concerns7 in Animal Behaviour in 1997. Hauser published a rebuttal in the same issue8, but four years later, in a paper in the American Journal of Primatology9, reported that he had been unable to reproduce the results of the earlier paper.

That does not necessarily mean the original claim was wrong, says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania. Subtle variations between experiments can lead to contradictory results without clearly indicating that one result is wrong. But Gallup thinks that the paper should have been withdrawn or corrected, especially given his experience with the raw data. "Unfortunately, I think most people are unaware of the published failure to replicate," he says, noting that the original 1995 paper has been cited 40 times, whereas the 2001 paper has been cited only 10 times.

De Waal worries that the field will face more problems as pressure builds for young professors to publish in high-profile journals. "Now scientists facing tenure are asked to produce something new and exciting that can be summed up in three pages," he says. "It's craziness, because actually the study of animal behaviour is painstaking, slow, laborious, and rarely leads to unambiguous results."

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Ledford, H. Harvard probe kept under wraps. Nature 466, 908–909 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/466908a

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