Harvard is urged to detail inquiry

Data sought on professor’s work; school insists findings private

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By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / August 12, 2010

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Scientists are calling on Harvard University to make public details about the findings of its three-year internal investigation of psychology professor Marc Hauser’s laboratory, which found evidence of scientific misconduct.

Though Hauser has told colleagues the case is closed and one of his papers is being retracted, Harvard has not disclosed information about the nature of the misconduct, nor even acknowledged that it conducted an investigation of the star faculty member. Harvard says such inquiries are confidential.

Researchers who, like Hauser, study animal cognition to better understand the evolutionary roots of the human mind say they are in the dark about the scope of the problem and whether other papers may also be in question.

The Globe reported Tuesday that following the Harvard probe, Hauser was taking a one-year leave and that he and two coauthors were retracting a 2002 article from the journal Cognition because of an unspecified error. The investigation also resulted in issues in two additional papers being brought to the attention of other journals. All the papers have multiple authors, but the only author in common among all three is Hauser.

“In science, even the hint of a pattern of unreliable data is very disturbing. Science operates on the assumption everything is sound; everyone is playing according to the rules,’’ David Premack, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania known for his work on the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees, said in an interview yesterday. “Before making a judgment, one has to have all the facts. The institution has to be entirely forthcoming. Any withholding of information, or even suggestion of it adds to the suspicion. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. Just tell the story.’’

A Harvard spokesman reiterated yesterday that reviews of faculty conduct are confidential. In general, the university reports research misconduct to relevant external agencies, including those that fund research, and corrections are made to the academic record. Hauser did not respond yesterday to e-mail and voicemail messages.

There are many unanswered questions about the specifics of the misconduct, the reasons for the lengthy investigation, and whether Hauser has gone on leave as a consequence of the investigation. A researcher in the field with direct knowledge said that some of Hauser’s former graduate students brought the possible misconduct to Harvard’s attention.

That fact is significant, according to Gerald Koocher, associate provost at Simmons College. It speaks well of the students and of Harvard, he said, because the university investigated their concerns seriously, even though they involved a successful scientist with a considerable amount of prestige.

“It must have been very, very hard for those junior people to come forward. They were risking a lot,’’ said Koocher, who recently conducted a study of how and when scientists intervene when they suspect scientific wrongdoing. “For a junior person to come forward — they have everything to lose and nothing to gain.’’

Because the research that was investigated was supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, Koocher noted that this case will also be investigated at the federal level. Government spokeswomen said they do not confirm or deny whether an investigation is underway. The federal Office of Research Integrity website states that the agency publicly posts “closed investigations that found misconduct, or that imposed administrative actions without a misconduct finding.’’

Koocher said the information about the retraction of the Cognition article is so vague that scientists who have collaborated with Hauser may now wonder whether they need to reevaluate work they did with him.

Hauser is a prolific scientist who has authored more than 200 scientific studies and book chapters and has collaborated with many scientists in multiple fields — from linguistics to anthropology.

Jenny Saffran, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published a paper with Hauser in Cognition in 2008 looking at grammar-learning in infants and in cotton-top tamarin monkeys. In an e-mail, Saffran said she tested the infants in her lab, but the monkeys were tested in Hauser’s lab.

“I am fully confident in the infant results,’’ Saffran wrote. “I don’t have access to the raw data for the monkey studies. I hope Harvard will share any pertinent results of their investigation with me. At this point, they know more than I do about whether concern is warranted about the monkey results in our paper.’’

Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote in an e-mail that he did not know the details of this case, but said it highlights a broader issue in how the university deals with information.

“I used to approve of the policy of not revealing any of the details of investigations within the university,’’ Gardner wrote. “I’ve changed my mind about this. Keeping proceedings secret simply produces rumors, and, in the era of blogging, these can be wild.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at