Fabrication plausible, journal editor believes

Paper by Harvard professor retracted

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / August 28, 2010

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The editor of a scientific journal said yesterday that the only plausible conclusion he can draw from his knowledge of an internal investigation into research by a Harvard psychology professor is that some of the data had been fabricated.

The editor of the journal Cognition, which in 2002 published an article coauthored by Marc Hauser that has been retracted, said that he had been given access to information from the Harvard inquiry related to that paper. Through correspondence with Harvard dean Michael D. Smith, said the editor, Gerry Altmann, he was made aware that video records of a critical part of the experiment were missing.

“Given that there is no evidence that the data, as reported, were in fact collected . . . and given that the reported data were subjected to statistical analyses to show how they supported the paper’s conclusions, I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here to deceive the field, with data that appear to have been fabricated,’’ Altmann wrote in an e-mail.

“This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic conduct,’’ he added. “However, this is just conjecture; I note that the investigation found no explanation for the discrepancy between what was found on the videotapes and what was reported in the paper.’’

Hauser, a prominent scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds,’’ said in an e-mail that he needed time to prepare a response.

The Globe first reported on Aug. 10 that Hauser was on leave after a three-year internal investigation into scientific misconduct in his lab. Last week, Smith confirmed in a letter to faculty that Hauser had been found “solely responsible’’ for eight instances of scientific misconduct that affected three published papers and five other experiments.

“There were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results,’’ Smith wrote in a letter to faculty, which added that Harvard was cooperating with inquiries by the federal Office of Research Integrity, the National Science Foundation office of the inspector general, and the US attorney’s office for the District of Massachusetts. Some of Hauser’s research was supported by federal funds.

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, would not directly address Altmann’s comments yesterday. “We are pleased that we have worked directly and effectively with the editors of the affected journals, including Cognition, to ensure that the scientific record is fully corrected,’’ Neal said in an e-mail.

Altmann said he could not provide a copy of the information he received about the investigation. He did not review the raw videotapes.

The investigation did not provide an explanation for the discrepancy between the videotapes and the reported findings, said Altmann. That means it is possible that the data were not fabricated. But he said it is not plausible to assume that the trials in question were recorded to different videotapes or that all videos of the experimental condition in question were all lost.

Hauser’s research explores the evolutionary roots of human cognitive abilities. In the paper in question, researchers were testing the ability of cotton-top tamarins to tell the difference between two “grammars,’’ or patterns of syllables. Each monkey was trained on one grammar, and during the test was supposed to be exposed to sequences from two different ones.

The goal was to see whether they could discriminate between the two patterns, an ability that had been measured in infants and was seen as important in the ability to learn language. In the original paper, which has been retracted, Hauser and colleagues found that the monkeys had this ability, suggesting it was not the critical ability for language.

According to Altmann, the videotapes showed only monkeys being exposed to one of the two grammars. But data showing them exposed to both was cited in the paper in a graph and was used to support the findings.

Altmann said that learning the results of the investigation, which did not provide an alternative explanation, led him to infer the data were fabricated. “The graph is effectively a fiction, and the statistic that is supplied in the main text is effectively a fiction,’’ Altmann said in an interview yesterday.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, said: “If the published paper reports that both grammars were tested when in fact only one was, this would be fraudulent.’’

The questions around Hauser have raised fears that good research and credible scientists who have worked with him may now find themselves cast in doubt. Many people in the field also have questions about what happened and why.

“Marc is a smart guy, a very fine writer’’ said Sarah Boysen, a visiting professor at the University of Portsmouth and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. “. . . Why would he feel compelled to go to the lengths that he apparently did? It’s very disappointing, but also frustrating. I’m really angry as a colleague.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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