Fabrication of “Errors” and Mentoring Misconduct

Update: Hauser has resigned from Harvard to to pursue “some exciting opportunities in the private sector” and some “extremely interesting and rewarding work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers” but may return to teaching and research “in the years to come.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education today reports on an internal Harvard document (a statement by a former research assistant given in 2007) as part of the obscure Marc Hauser case that describes

how research assistants became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification.

The former research assistant described the motivation for coming forward as a concern to “make it clear that it was solely Mr. Hauser who was responsible for the problems he observed … [and to] help other researchers make sense of the allegations.”

So what happened?

The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. … If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed. … the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. … [the research assistant] found that the monkeys didn’t seem to notice the change in pattern. … [Hauser] found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant.”

Okay – big discrepancy as to who saw what and how they interpreted what they saw. Solution? Have a third researcher analyze the tapes, which is what a research assistant assigned to analyze the two sets of data (Hauser’s and the RA who did not see the monkeys recognize any changes) suggested. A graduate student agreed. Hauser did not.

“I don’t feel comfortable analyzing results/publishing data with that kind of skew until we can verify that with a third coder,” [wrote the research assistant assigned to analyze the data] …

“i am getting a bit pissed here,” Mr. Hauser wrote in an e-mail to one research assistant. “there were no inconsistencies! let me repeat what happened. i coded everything. then [a research assistant] coded all the trials highlighted in yellow. we only had one trial that didn’t agree. i then mistakenly told [another research assistant] to look at column B when he should have looked at column D. … we need to resolve this because i am not sure why we are going in circles.”

Given earlier studies whose findings were questioned when independent scientists reviewed Hauser’s videotapes, this is not surprising. The research assistant and graduate student took the initiative to get to the bottom of the discrepancies themselves:

The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser’s permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn’t appear to react to the change in patterns.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser’s coding and, according to the research assistant’s statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn’t so much as flinch. It wasn’t simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

So, complete fabrication in this experiment. Perhaps much of Hauser’s career.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

Recall, too, that the original Globe report noted that “Colleagues of Hauser’s at Harvard and other universities have been aware for some time that questions had been raised about some of his research …”

After three years of investigating, Harvard took steps to have the scientific record corrected (retractions) but did not acknowledge, despite apparently knowing, the type of misconduct that led to these errors or what the errors were, leaving this to ORI – which will take additional time, perhaps years, to complete and report its investigation.

In the meantime, perhaps the scientific community can begin to sort out how to reassess the state of the field, and at least Hauser won’t be engaging in his special sort of mentorship, as described by the whistle-blowing research assistant: “The most disconcerting part of the whole experience to me was the feeling that Marc was using his position of authority to force us to accept sloppy (at best) science.”

7 Comments »

  1. SaG said

    And Harvard got ranked first by US News (http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/national-universities-rankings)? Since research is such an important component of their rankings (These colleges also are committed to producing groundbreaking research), I think US News needs to consider how the schools deal (or don’t) with misconduct.

  2. maurice said

    It is interesting that the fraud was uncovered by lowly research assistants and not by collaborators/potential coauthors. RAs are not put on papers; collaborators are. You’re put on a paper by a big name from Harvard, why would you question the data even if the findings seem a little too good to be true. That way, you can always backpedal later claiming that you never saw the data. Wonder how much of the work in these ‘fuzzy’ fields is BS.

  3. BB said

    Maurice, plenty of RAs are put on papers. Maybe not at Harvard but just about everywhere else.

  4. drugmonkey said

    Harvard Dean of FAS confirms misconduct findings.

    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/08/harvard-dean-confirms-misconduct.html

  5. Spiny Nprman said

    …and apparently Mr. Poopyhead will get to keep his job @harvard.edu. Disgusting.

    Oh, and as mentioned above, RA’s routinely are listed as coauthors In many
    labs in many fields. Certainly that’s the case in my lab.

    • LISP Machine said

      Harvard Dean: “options in findings of scientific misconduct include involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research.”

      That’s it? How about termination? I thought tenured faculty can be fired for ungentlemanly behavior.

      “apparently Mr. Poopyhead will get to keep his job @harvard.edu”

      Dont worry. He may not be fired, but I dont think that continuing at Harvard is a viable option for him. Being treated as a pariah by your colleagues and students would be too much to bear for anyone. My guess is that he will resign and move to Korea with HH.

  6. ” Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case. This has been painful for me and those who have been associated with the work”.

    I guess I was wrong. Continuing at Harvard is not embarrassing him in the least. The feds may have something to say about that though.

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