CTSI Blogs

The Research Ethics Blog by Bernard Lo, MD

Research Misconduct: A Case of Monkey Business

Marc Hauser is an academic superstar at Harvard who has carried out research on the evolutionary basis of human cognition and morality and on the cognitive abilities of primates.  He has also written best-selling popular books about his field.  Three years ago, a research assistant and graduate student in his laboratory raised allegations of misconduct, accusing him of reporting findings on videotapes that could not be confirmed by other observers.  One study reported that tamarin monkeys can recognize themselves in a mirror.  Another professor in the field who reviewed the videotapes of the experiment said that there was no basis for that conclusion.  Another study claimed that tamarin monkeys could learn moral rules just as human infants can.  A co-author on the latter study said that he saw summaries of the data but not the raw data.  This month, Harvard found Hauser guilty of 8 instances of scientific misconduct but gave no details, citing confidentiality concerns. 

One paper was retracted because its findings could not be confirmed.  The editor of that journal, who received a copy of the Harvard investigation, said that “Given that there is no evidence that the data, as reported, were in fact collected … I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here, using data that appear to have been fabricated, to deceive the field into believing something for which there was in fact no evidence at all.”  In two other papers, repeat experiments confirmed the original findings, and were reported as a addendum or correction.  Hauser apologized for his “significant mistakes.”  Investigators are underway by federal agencies that funded his research and by the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

Other researchers in the field have complained that the keeping the results of the investigation secret cast unfair suspicion on the entire field and particularly on colleagues and trainees who collaborated on other projects. 


  • The university is convening a committee to review how it handles allegations of misconduct.  What recommendations would you make to the committee? 




A protocol is probably in place to handle accusations of academic misconduct, at Harvard and other academic institutions. It would be interesting to see how this protocol protects whistleblowers and how it investigates serious allegations of academic misconduct. Other interesting questions are (1) how to prevent academic misconduct from happening in the first place, and (2) what to do once someone commits academic misconduct. These questions are intricately tied together. It seems that prevention occurs throughout the educational system: students are constantly cautioned against fabricating data or copying work; truth and integrity are highly valued as admission criteria to academic institutions. However, the motivations and circumstances involved in academic misconduct are unknown in most instances. Harvard veiled this information when it closed the book on Hauser's case without reporting on the crucial question of why Hauser felt the need to fabricate his results. The question of what to do once someone commits academic misconduct may have repercussions for how to prevent misconduct. Transparent questioning and public reporting of motivations and life stressors of the researcher in question should both be part of the process in aiding a wayward researcher. This both allows us, as a society who consumes research, to understand why misconduct was perpetrated, as well as identifying intervention points for young researchers who may be tempted by similar motivations but have yet to perform any misconduct. For example, if the problem is institutional (Hauser felt the need to publish in order to maintain job security), proper institutional remedies can be instituted to stem academic misconduct (job security can be determined by factors unrelated to publication). If the problem was a character issue (Hauser, after achieving fame, needed more fame to feel fulfilled), these character traits can be dissuaded from entering careers in the sciences. As it stands, we have no idea why Hauser, or other academicians, falsified their data or reported inaccurate results. Only by knowing why our researchers are engaging in academic misconduct can we expect to stem the tide of false information issued from some players in all levels of academia.

Harvard is in a unique position to address the issue of academic fraud to the highest standard because their prominent stature in academia. They have to set the example for which all other institutions will hopefully then follow. At this time, I would have 2 recommendations for them: First, Harvard should address the significant delay in identifying the problem. Presumably this delay came about because they did not take the allegations 3 years ago more seriously. Harvard will now have to err on taking a whistle blowing comments much more seriously and may need to implement or reeducate the faculty and staff on current whistle blowing measures. This type of recommendation would necessitate a change in the research culture and may require much greater levels of scrutiny. Second, Harvard should change how they responded to the accusations in the first place. The secrecy surrounding Harvard’s delayed response to the problem (once the press became aware of the issue) quickly became the more sensational issue. While, it is understandable why Harvard acted they way they did - wanting to wait until a more thorough investigation takes place so as to avoid rumor and misinformation - the fact that Harvard was in charge of releasing this information on their own reeks of conflict of interest. Perhaps there should be greater involvement of independent auditors and perhaps that independent group should be working in tandem with their own internal group at the first sign of impropriety (the whistle blowing stage listed above).

Being that Harvard is a highly respected academic institution, there are many people who are going to be watching closely to see how these allegations are handled. I would recommend to the committee to make the ongoing investigation public. Doing this will allow for a number of things. It will make an impression on others in research and serve as an important lesson to all of those who are tempted to fabricate data. At this time, he is apologizing for his "mistakes". These are not "mistakes", but rather intentional misconduct. There are also many people who have collaborated with Dr. Hauser whose careers will be ruined from misconduct conducted by him. It needs to be teased out to understand fully who is guilty and who is innocent. The secrecy of the investigation may lead to false accusations for innocent hardworking collaborators on other projects.

I think you make a very good point. While it is wrong regardless of who had done it, I think just because it was done by a Harvard professor, it could lead to more publicity and attention. This means that the situation should be handled with care to make the right decision because of its public appeal. So, I agree with you, an ongoing public investigation would prevent any one else from pursuing this also. Additionally, I also think that if he apologizes, that's admitting to intentional misconduct, which requires consequence, rather than allowing him to go on as is.

The motivations for misconduct such as Dr. Hauser's are human nature. Anecdotal evidence has it that such academic misconduct, including more and less blatant and detectable versions of it, are very common. In Dr. Hauser's case, the "system" has correctly caught this misconduct and appears to be on its way to punishing it. Three steps may be taken to better prevent misconduct. (1) Journals are responsible for what they choose to publish. They should institute some means of questioning and checking (i.e., monitoring or investigating) the background of what they choose to publish. Perhaps this could be done periodically. The journals appropriately risk losing their reputation if they publish work that is not rigorous. They should do background checks on the authors of papers they are interested in publishing. In Dr. Hauser's case, the journal could contact researchers that do related work to get their opinion on the scientific merit and level of rigor or believability of Dr. Hauser's work. Also, they should see if any allegations or investigations are underway. For example, they should work in connection with the university misconduct boards/committees. (2) Universities need to have a stronger (i.e., larger, more serious) misconduct monitoring system in order to prevent misconduct--before it happens or gets too serious. Perhaps misconduct "investigators" that are independent of the academic departments should be set up to do routine checks--encouraging whistleblowing as well as randomly chosen monitoring checks--but of course with procedures that prevent un-merited and public slandering to occur. (3) Very large penalties need to be instituted such that the preventive effect is in place. While the consequences to society and human well-being are little with regard to the report that monkeys can recognize themselves or have or don't have morality, other types of science with regard to medications and medical procedures have more serious consequences to human lives. Let's police those more, and make sure the consequences in those areas are implemented and effective. Here's a toast to moral monkeys (!), to Dr. Hauser's colleagues who have let themselves finally speak out (!), and to Harvard for really doing something about this to set an example to other "scholars"!

Harvard should review its policies on the consequences of scientific misconduct—does the punishment fit the crime? More transparency in the review process, particular in the timing and results of the investigation, as mentioned in the above comments, would help answer questions about the appropriate penalty for Dr. Hauser. Surprisingly, he was allowed to continue his work and research during the three years after the graduate students raised questions about his lab. Even after Harvard’s report was complete in January, there was little press about his case until he recently retracted another paper. Now he is supposedly writing a book during a one-year leave. These outcomes seem minor compared to his actions, although it is impossible to be sure without having more access to the report. Surely there was evidence earlier in the review process that would allow the department or university to take some action against him. It would be surprising to have him continue his research at Harvard, or anywhere for that matter, after these eight instances of scientific misconduct.

I think its important to talk to the students in his lab. They are the ones who really know what is going on and it looks like they first brought these concerns to the attention of officials years ago. I also think this is related to the larger issue of the relationships between graduate students/postdocs and their mentors, and how much misconduct occurs in that relationship. There should be a better process for how students can raise concerns about their mentors, including scientific misconduct.

First, I would like to address a previous remark by respondent. I was a little caught off guard to read the following response, “Surprisingly, he was allowed to continue his work and research during the three years after the graduate students raised questions about his lab.” It is my opinion that allegations are just that and any potential misconduct must be handled in way not to adversely affect any participant in the investigation until a participant or participants are actually found guilty of misconduct. In the same respect, those who levy any allegations must be protected. The U.S. Department of Labor has enacted “whistle blower” laws to protect employees from retaliation, for reporting violations of the laws etc. The research assistant is an employee of the University and may be protected under these laws if this researcher had Federal Funding, but the graduate student most likely is not an employee. I think there is a potential problem here and to prevent a hostile learning / work environment the university committee may need to make this a priority. Research misconduct has similar themes that parallel our previous discussion in class on ethical issues surrounding authorship. It seems to be fully tied to academic culture. I agree with another respondent who raised the point that universities and the public may want to ask why academic misconduct happens in the first place. It may be beneficial take a closer look at the institutional framework for success as well as the individuals they are hiring. In the long term, the Federal government has instituted this ethics class requirement to attempt to change the future academic culture, but changing cultural beliefs and attitudes takes time. Therefore, what to do in the meantime? Like a previous respondent, I too believe that this university most likely has a protocol in place to address academic misconduct and it can be tweaked to add more teeth to the penalties. A more forward way of addressing this problem is not rely on the Federal government to institute a mandatory ethics courses for students only, but the university can develop their own peer generated ethics program that has outcome measures that are tied to academic promotion.

In my opinion, the most important recommendation to the committee would be that they need to make the investigation public. I often interpret the "private" investigations of misconduct (in any form or setting) in prestigious, private institutions, to stem more from motivation to protect the reputation of the university and "contain the damage", so to speak, rather than from doing what is in the best interest of all those affected by an individuals' missteps. While the investigator's career is certainly at risk, so are the careers of multiple students and collaborators. By making the investigation public, those who were innocent of wrong doing but somehow tied to the investigator's work could potentially be salvaged from professional disaster. Moreover, by making these investigations public, other researchers/collaborators might be more inclined to report misconduct of their superiors in the future without the anxiety of their own careers being threatened.

This case brings up not only the question of how to handle cases of academic misconduct, but also allows us to consider why academic misconduct happens in the first place and analyze steps a university might take towards prevention. Academia is special and important in that research is (at least we hope) motivated by a desire for knowledge and understanding and, as such, is removed from the biases that profit-driven industries inevitably evoke. However, the academic community is not entirely immune to bias. An investigator, having a great interest in a topic, forms an experimental hypothesis which he or she hopes to substantiate through the course of a study. In forming this hypothesis, there is already some amount of bias built into the study. A problem results when, for one reason or another, an investigator feels that the quality of their work is defined by the uncovering of results in support of their experimental hypothesis rather than by the methodological rigor invested in the design and conduction of the study. It has been established that studies with results that favor the experimental hypothesis are more likely to be published than their null counterparts, a phenomenon, known as publication bias, which fueled an entirely new field of scientific inquiry (research about research!). It is important to also mention that publication bias occurs primarily at the author level (vs. editorial/peer review level) due to researchers being less likely to submit manuscripts reporting non-significant results, which has since been coined the ‘file-drawer problem.’ Therefore, there seems to be this perception within academia that to be a good researcher, one must come up with ‘positive’ results when in reality ‘negative’ results are just as informative. With competition for funding and academic positions becoming increasingly stiff, this ‘publish or perish’ mentality has become a ‘publish positive results or perish’ mentality. Not only that, but if academic promotions hinge on publication number and the impact factors of the journals the material is published in, it can create a conflict-of-interest of sorts in creating a need for publication by the investigator, under the false belief that positive results are more likely to be published than negative results. This would appear to create a temptation by the investigator to produce favorable results, which, they believe, makes them more likely to be published, cited, and acquire status within their field… thus increasing the risk for academic misconduct. This case highlights an institutional ailment beyond problems of secrecy in handling cases of academic misconduct. If it is our ‘end-goal’ to preserve the integrity (and objectivity) of the profession, we need to examine the definitions of success we use within academia.