Research Misconduct: A Case of Monkey Business
The Research Ethics Blog by Bernard Lo, MD
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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One paper was retracted because its findings could not be confirmed.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?