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Although the amount of courses available this fall may seem overwhelming, one professor’s offerings are notably missing. After Psychology Professor Marc D. Hauser’s research was investigated under the direction of Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, he was found “solely responsible” for eight different counts of scientific misconduct and is currently taking a year of leave from teaching at the University. While this sanction may appear to be a sore in Harvard’s side, the process that led to this decision reinforces the high standards to which we are glad professors are held.
Hauser’s story is surprising, given his sizable body of research and influence on the field of evolutionary psychology. Yet the action taken against Hauser by Harvard illustrates that no one’s work is immune to scrutiny or probing. Although misconduct in any academic discipline is obviously cause for great concern, the widespread publicity that this story has generated will ideally make it clear to researchers of all levels that the scientific community and its institutions will not stand for it. Additionally, as much as this investigation will serve as a reminder for researchers to act honestly, it also gives students proof that academic honesty is a standard applicable to everyone.
Although popular science is often accessible to the general population because it presents its findings without rundowns of complicated methods, a lack of transparency has complicated this entire situation. Not only was the alleged misconduct in the experiments behind the rescinded journal articles veiled from the peer reviewers, but Harvard’s reporting of its own investigation has lacked specifics as well. Rather than imitate the very problem it is trying to quell, Harvard should make public the findings of its internal investigation and clarify for what types of scientific misconduct Hauser was “solely responsible.”
In the wake of an incident such as this, institutional review boards—the bodies that determine whether study proposals are ethically and scientifically sound before they are allowed to proceed—should heighten their approach to checking methods that are controversial or extremely subtle. Professors at research universities are under constant pressure to publish their findings. If negative results are accepted as normal parts of the research process rather than symbols of failure and shame, perhaps researchers such as Hauser will feel less pressure to alter their results to be “right.”
Some of the few people who have been forthright during this process are former students who worked in Hauser’s lab. They presented evidence of correspondences with Hauser that showed his frustration with the students’ desire to check data again before coming to a conclusion. The courage to stand up to a tenured Harvard professor is admirable and a salient example of the rightful prioritization of accuracy over fame. As such, we laud the students who questioned the pressure they were receiving from Hauser.
Professor Hauser has been an innovator in his field and a popular lecturer while at Harvard, but if Dean Smith provides strong evidence that he intentionally fabricated scientific data, Hauser should be removed from the Faculty. Like the boy who cried wolf, there will be little reason to believe anything else he says in the future. Still, even if Hauser is not in the classroom anymore, there are lessons to be learned from his trials.
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