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Science

Ex-Harvard scientist fabricated, manipulated data, report says

Marc Hauser

Globe File Photo

Marc Hauser.

Marc Hauser, a prolific scientist and popular psychology professor who resigned last summer from Harvard University, had fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and incorrectly described how studies were conducted, according to the findings of a federal research oversight agency posted online Wednesday.

The report details the problems that triggered a three-year university investigation that concluded in 2010 that Hauser, a star professor and public intellectual, had committed scientific misconduct. The document, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday, lists six cases in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in work supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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One published paper was retracted after Harvard concluded its investigation, and two were corrected. Other problems were found in unpublished experiments.

Although Hauser “neither admits nor denies committing research misconduct,” he does, the report states, accept that federal authorities “found evidence of research misconduct.”

In a statement, Hauser apologized and described the scrutiny of the past five years as a “long and painful period.”

“Although I have fundamental differences with some of the findings,” Hauser wrote, “I acknowledge that I made mistakes. . . . I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made within the lab, whether or not I was directly involved.”

Hauser agreed to a number of restrictions for three years, including a ban on serving as an adviser to the US Public Health Service, a requirement that any work he does with funding from that agency be supervised, and that an institution vouch for the validity of any such research.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Hauser now works at the Alternative Education Program at Cape Cod Collaborative, working with at-risk youth.

“I look forward to making new contributions to human welfare, education, and the role of scientific knowledge in understanding human nature,” Hauser wrote.

The government report outlines a wide gamut of unethical scientific practices in work supported by four NIH grants. Harvard investigators had detailed the problems in a confidential document forwarded to the federal Office of Research Integrity, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services, but the specifics have not been previously made public. The agency said it also conducted its own analysis.

According to the federal findings:

  Hauser fabricated data in a 2002 paper in the journal Cognition that concluded that monkeys can distinguish between different patterns of syllables — challenging the idea that this skill, which had been seen in infants, evolved to enable people to learn language. He did not expose monkeys to a particular sound pattern as described in the experiment, despite reporting the results in a graph. This is the paper that was retracted in 2010.

  In two experiments, researchers measured monkeys’ responses to patterns of consonants and vowels, a process called “coding” their behavior. Hauser falsified the coding, causing the results to pass a statistical test used to ensure that a particular finding was not just a chance result. Colleagues coding the same experiments came up with different results that did not pass the test. Hauser “acknowledged to his collaborators that he miscoded some of the trials and that the study failed to provide support for the initial hypothesis.”

  A draft of a paper examining monkeys’ abilities to learn grammatical patterns included false descriptions of how the monkeys’ behavior was coded, “leading to a false proportion or number of animals showing a favorable response.” Hauser said the behavior was coded by three scientists, when he was the only one to measure their behavior in one of the experiments. Then, when the manuscript was revised, he provided a false numerical description of the extent of agreement among multiple observers in coding behavior, despite being the only observer. All issues were corrected before publication.

  In a published experiment that examined monkeys’ responses to gestures, Hauser incorrectly reported results and also falsely said all trials were videotaped, when only 30 out of 40 were found for one experiment. Hauser “was not responsible for the coding, analyses, or archiving but takes full responsibility for the falsifications reported in the published paper.” The experiments were later repeated, confirming the results.

  In another published experiment, the primates were said to be identified with natural markings, tattoos, or ear notches to avoid retesting the same animal, but only half the animals had such identifying characteristics. The experiment was repeated and published, upholding the original finding.

  After coding rhesus monkeys’ responses to strings of sounds, Hauser and a research assistant discovered a problem with the coding procedures. Hauser recoded the behaviors, and the new coding differed in 36 cases from the original, nearly all in a way that would produce a result that was significant. Later, he admitted the coding was incorrect.

Bennett G. Galef Jr., a professor emeritus of psychology at McMaster University, said that while he agreed there were problems with one paper, the list of problems described in the report did not clearly prove misconduct by Hauser.

“It’s just a shame to see someone who’s very creative and brought great contributions to the field brought down on the basis of what’s, to me, not very convincing evidence,” Galef said.

In a statement, a Harvard University spokesman said that the findings bring to a conclusion an investigative process the university started, and confirmed its findings.

“No university or college wants to see a member of the faculty found responsible for research misconduct, for such misconduct strikes at the core of our academic values,” the statement said.

The problems came to light two years ago when the Globe reported that Hauser had sent letters to his colleagues informing them that an investigation into his lab had found evidence of misconduct and that one paper would be retracted. Hauser took a leave of absence and, after faculty voted to bar him from teaching in the psychology department, he resigned. Many scientists and colleagues have been waiting for the federal findings, hoping they would clarify what Hauser did wrong and perhaps explain whether the problems cast a shadow over his more than 200 scientific publications and collaborations with leading figures in diverse fields.

“I don’t think people should stop citing the ideas, and many of the things he’s done have now, one way or another,” been repeated, said Gerry Altmann, editor of the journal Cognition. Still, he said, “it’s not clear one can trust the data in other studies.”

Hauser probed the evolutionary roots of human abilities such as language and studied whether morality was innate or learned — questions that piqued the interest not only of scientists but of the general public. He was known for his interdisciplinary approach, running a laboratory with cotton-top tamarin monkeys but also collaborating with colleagues who studied infants, and posing moral conundrums to people over the Internet.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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