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Letter: Harvard's Hauser Inquiry Undermined Scientific Process

Academics question handling of investigation into top psychologist's alleged misconduct

By Polina Bartik
By Julia L. Ryan, Crimson Staff Writer

A letter signed by a group of prominent academics lambasts Harvard and the media for the role they played in the investigation of former Harvard psychology professor Marc D. Hauser.

“[The investigation] has a distinctive ring of McCarthysim, and all the toxic implications of that witch-hunting era,” the authors of the letter write.

The letter—which was signed by MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky, one of Hauser’s mentors—criticizes the scope of the inquiry into Hauser’s research, the media frenzy that followed the release of Harvard’s findings, and insinuations that Hauser’s body of work has been thrown into question by the investigation.

Quoting a scientist who says Harvard trespassed against “elementary principles of natural justice,” the letter says that after the investigation into Hauser’s work researchers should now fear an “inquisitorial method that abolishes the scientific method.”

Eight academics from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil signed the letter, including Harvard Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Florian Engert. It has been circulated among top academics.

The Crimson obtained a copy of the letter—titled “Could the Process of Investigating Scientific Misconduct Undermine Scientific Inquiry?”—from the authors.

Following allegations that Hauser falsified research data, a three-year investigation into Hauser’s research found him “solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith wrote in a letter last August. Reports attributed the source of those allegations to his graduate students.

In the fallout from the investigation, Hauser took a year-long leave of absence, was then barred from teaching for another year, and ultimately resigned from his tenured position this summer.

The letter condemns Harvard for seizing what the academics see as an excessively wide array of documents from Hauser’s lab, ranging from emails to financial documents. Such an action, the academics argue, represents a violation of free scientific inquiry.

The authors take particular umbrage with the seizure of unpublished research, saying that it should not have been included in the research misconduct investigation. Five of the eight counts of scientific misconduct in Hauser’s work were found in unpublished work.

“Every scientist […] and every student considering entering into science, should greatly fear an environment in which every unpublished fragment of research, every financial record, is open to scrutiny by university officials and government investigators,” the authors write.

When asked to comment on the letter, FAS spokesperson Jeff Neal referred back to Smith’s letter last August, in which he wrote that the investigation “was governed by our long-standing policies on professional conduct and shaped by the regulations of federal funding agencies.”

Federal law requires universities to take “all reasonable and practical steps to obtain custody of all the research records and evidence needed to conduct the research misconduct proceeding” when the research is funded by federal grants.

The relevant law defines “research misconduct” as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in “proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” The regulations do not distinguish between published and unpublished work, and it is unclear whether Harvard seized such a wide variety of materials because federal guidelines compelled it to do so.

Smith’s August 2010 letter represents Harvard’s most comprehensive public disclosure about the Hauser investigation but still leaves questions about the exact nature of the misconduct unanswered.

While the authors of the study praise Harvard’s insistence on preserving confidentiality—calling it a “well-justified, codified policy”—they criticize a “headline-hungry media” for perpetuating unfounded gossip about Hauser and his body of work.

The authors argue that a charge of fabrication in any of three published studies is “curious” because, according to Harvard, the experiments for the studies were “designed and conducted,” implying that they must have taken place. They also say that it is “curious” to find Hauser “solely responsible” for misconduct because in two of the studies he did not collect or code the data himself.

The letter argues that “it would be impossible… for [Hauser] to micromanage all experiments, verifying all details,” but acknowledges that since Hauser was a principal investigator in these studies, he is ultimately responsible for the work coming out of his lab.

Much of Hauser’s research involves the observation of primates’ responses to various stimuli. Based on those responses, Hauser has drawn conclusions on their ability to understand language, a method that critics say is prone to observer bias.

The authors of the letter accuse critics of exploiting media attention on the issue to cast doubt on Hauser’s entire body of work. These claims, according to the letter, “are patently absurd and should offend all researchers by reducing science from an (imperfect) form for rational inquiry and assessment to a kangaroo court.”

Hauser’s studies have been “numerously, diversely, and robustly replicated ... both by his lab and others,” the letter says. Furthermore, the authors cite generations of young scientists who have studied under Hauser as a sign that Hauser himself was a “productive” scientist.

“Would they be so esteemed and able to replicate and extend their mentor’s work if they had trained under a regime of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism?” the letter asks. “Is it rational to believe that Hauser is the godfather of a secret international cartel for scientific fraud?”

Bennett G. Galef Jr, an emeritus professor of psychology at McMaster University, reviewed Harvard’s evidence for misconduct in the three published cases for Hauser and his lawyers, and the authors quote from personal correspondence with Galef that casts doubt on the University’s findings.

“In my opinion there is nothing in the charges and data relating to the three published articles to show Hauser guilty of anything. Rather, what I saw on numerous occasions in numerous ways was Harvard violating what I take to be elementary principles of natural justice,” Galef is quoted as writing.

The authors conclude the letter by encouraging fellow scientists to consider the implications Hauser’s case could have on the field.

“As scientists, we all ought to be scared by the idea of an inquisitorial method that abolishes the scientific method by prying into unpublished work, feeds a media frenzy […] and overlooks the hypocrisy of the critics who fail to look at their own vulnerabilities and how they run their own labs… we will need all our wits about us to face this clear and present danger,” they write.

The letter was written by Pierre Pica, a scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research; Bert Vaux, director of studies in linguistics at King's College in the University of Cambridge; and Jeffrey Watumull, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. Watumull previously worked in Hauser's lab.

—Staff writer Julia L. Ryan can be reached at jryan@college.harvard.edu.

READ MORE: Read the letter signed by the academics here.

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