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Following the exposure of psychology professor Marc D. Hauser’s multiple instances of academic misconduct, the scientific community has quietly set out to review the relevant literature that may have been affected by the researchers’ faulty work.
Last month, a three-year Harvard investigation found Hauser—considered a trailblazer in the field of animal psychology—responsible for eight counts of misconduct and questioned the validity of three academic articles. Though the report recommended the retraction of one of Hauser’s articles, it made no mention of the remainder of his works.
With a federal investigation now underway, much of Hauser’s research has been called into question—and with it, the annals of literature that have grown out of it.
In response, the Psychology Department at Harvard has set in motion a project to review Hauser’s work and to determine the areas of his groundbreaking research that can be salvaged.
The task is daunting. In the last 10 years alone, Hauser has published 143 articles and four books, work that has helped form the foundation for an entirely new field of science.
“It creates a lot of uncertainty for people in those fields,” said a Harvard psychology professor who asked to remain anonymous, stating that the situation is still evolving. “They may begin to worry about whether they can trust other findings from that lab.”
INTEGRITY OF THE SCIENCE
After concluding its internal investigation, Harvard passed the case over to the federal Office of Research Integrity, which will conduct an independent investigation that could take over a year.
The dual investigations are fact-finding operations to determine if and where fault lies. But professors said for the scientific community, the reports only brush the surface of a lengthy process to cleanse the scientific record of the effects of Hauser’s “misconduct.”
“Read my lips,” Psychology Department Chair Susan E. Carey ’64 said of the task before her and the community. “This is going to unfold over years.”
The department established a committee to begin a process that could include combing through decades of research.
“We are starting a process in collaboration with the animal cognition community about how to deal with this,” Carey said. “Clearing the record is the way you deal with the integrity of the science.”
Carey said that the department has also assumed the responsibility of vindicating any department members—students and colleagues alike—who may have worked with Hauser in the past.
“They’re being damaged by guilt by association,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to figure out a process by which the field as a whole can separate the good work from the tainted work.”
According to his curriculum vitae, Hauser has advised 24 Ph.D. students and overseen 15 post doctoral students. The CV lists 221 published papers authored or co-authored by him.
And in an academic web of peer research, hundreds of published articles cite and work off of Hauser’s research.
Hauser has made a name for himself by executing novel research techniques in the field of animal cognition. His work with primates and cotton-top tamarins—the subject of Hauser’s only article to have been retracted—has involved a unique set of research skills and costly access to the animals.
“You don’t want to throw out about two decades of groundbreaking work, but you also don’t want to build a science on shaky ground,” said the psychology professor.
“How do we rescue millions of dollars of research?” the individual added.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
As the community awaits the conclusions of the ORI investigation, the Psychology Department has turned to past precedence.
The department has circulated among its members an academic article about the case of Eric T. Poehlman, a former professor at the University of Vermont who was found responsible for research misconduct by an internal investigation in September of 2003.
The article, titled “Research Misconduct, Retraction, and Cleansing the Medical Literature: Lessons from the Poehlman Case,” recounts the process that UVM faculty members went through to identify tainted articles and inform the scientific community after Poehlman had been found responsible of misconduct.
“Our goal is to try to incrementally improve the record, to try to make it a little clearer,” said UVM Psychology Professor Russell P. Tracy, who has led the review since it began in 2005. The project is in its final phase, as members notify journals of their findings.
Instead of directly reviewing each published article, the committee asked co-authors of Poehlman’s published works to vouch for the validity of the pieces. Not all articles received a co-author’s stamp of approval, but Tracy said that the review found very few articles that could be considered fraudulent because of their reliance on the research in question.
“Secondarily fraudulent,” Tracy said.
After five years, Tracy has found little glory in his work, he said: “It’s a large arduous operation that takes faculty away from everything else that they have to do.”
But the academic article, which points to Tracy’s work as a model method, places the heavy responsibility of correcting the literature on the scientific community, demanding that it “treat every article as suspect until proven otherwise.”
“The ORI has neither the mandate nor the resources to lead the task of correcting a scientific literature polluted by fraudulent research,” the authors state. “This responsibility lies with the community of scientists.”
—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at email@example.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: September 21, 2010
Due to an editing error, the online headline for this Sept. 17 news article originally stated that the Psychology Department is reviewing Marc Hauser's works. According to Chair Susan E. Carey '64, the department does not anticipate engaging in any such review. It is in the early stages of trying to reach consensus about what the department's responsibilities are, if any, concerning efforts to evaluate Hauser's works.
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