Embattled researcher repeats experiments

One of 3 studies to be questioned

MARC HAUSER Data upheld the finding: that rhesus monkeys appeared to distinguish between accidental and intentional actions. MARC HAUSER
Data upheld the finding: that rhesus monkeys appeared to distinguish between accidental and intentional actions.
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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The journal Science published a clarification yesterday of a 2007 study led by Marc Hauser, the embattled Harvard psychology professor who was found by a university investigation to be solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct.

The paper was one of three published works called into question by the investigation last year. But the journal said that Hauser and a colleague had redone experiments used in the 2007 study and that the new data confirmed the original findings.

The clarification was made as attention has refocused on the prominent researcher, whose work has examined which cognitive abilities set humans apart from animals. Last week, a Harvard spokesman said that after a vote by the psychology faculty and a decision by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Hauser would not teach at Harvard next academic year. He has been on leave this year.

The clarification to the Science paper states that some missing raw data were discovered “because the researcher who performed the experiments inadvertently failed to archive the original field notes.’’

When the missing records were discovered, those experiments, which involved behavioral experiments on rhesus monkeys, were redone by Hauser and Justin Wood, a former graduate student of Hauser’s.

The data upheld the original finding: that rhesus monkeys, along with other nonhuman primates, appeared to distinguish between accidental and intentional actions.

The new data, complete with videotape of rhesus monkeys doing the experiments, has been made available online by Science.

The journal also released a statement: “We stress this new publication aims only to determine whether the original rhesus monkey experiments from the 2007 paper can be replicated. It has no bearing on questions raised about Dr. Hauser’s larger body of work.’’

Marc Hauser wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that he was glad the raw data had been made public, because it would allow other researchers to examine the results.

“We were pleased that we were able to publish our replication, not only because the results stand up, but because we were able to reproduce the same findings with more stringent methods,’’ Hauser wrote.

Gerry Altmann, editor of the journal Cognition, dealt with the retraction of a 2002 paper by Hauser and two coauthors. Altmann said that this case seemed different.

“In the Cognition case, there was no suggestion of lost videotapes — it would appear that the critical condition was never run,’’ Altmann said in an e-mail.

Altmann added that the careful rerunning of the experiment will benefit Wood, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. An ongoing fear has been that Hauser’s many collaborators, who range from prominent scientists to junior researchers, could be tainted by their connection to Hauser, since many details remain murky.

’’There were data missing, and Wood has been given the opportunity, rightly, to show the original report does replicate,’’ Altmann said.

Still, the clarification fails to bring closure to the questions swirling around Hauser. The scientific community is waiting for the Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services to conclude its investigation and make its findings public.

Ann Bradley, a spokeswoman for the office, said the case was open at the Division of Investigative Oversight.

Hauser is the last author on the Science paper, typically the spot reserved for the scientist who plays a leadership role in the investigation and runs the lab that supports the research. Wood was the first author of the paper, generally a more junior scientist who carries out much of the work.

Wood wrote last June to Science, informing editors there of the need to amend the paper. In the letter, Wood stated that the Harvard investigation had found missing raw data for experiments involving rhesus monkeys.

According to the letter, the researcher who conducted the experiments on rhesus monkeys was David Glynn, a research assistant who is no longer at Harvard and did not respond to an e-mail yesterday.

“Professor Hauser states that ‘most of the rhesus monkey observations were handwritten by Glynn on a piece of paper and then the daily results tallied and reported to Wood over e-mail or by phone,’ and then the raw data were discarded,’’ Wood wrote in the letter.

Glynn was also cited when a study coauthored by Hauser in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B was corrected because of missing raw data.

In that case, Wood and Hauser reran the experiments because of missing videos and raw data, which were originally collected by Glynn. In that case, too, the new experiments supported the original findings.

“We requested the necessary clarifications and/or corrections in all the instances cited, including the paper that was published in Science,’’ Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal said in a written statement yesterday.

“We are pleased to see that concerns regarding the scientific record are being addressed.’’

Carolyn Johnson can be reached at