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New questions raised about former Harvard professor Marc Hauser

In an unusual back and forth, a prominent philosophy professor at Princeton University has accused Marc Hauser, who resigned from Harvard University in August, of not giving adequate credit to another scholar in his popular book, Moral Minds.

Hauser, a psychology professor who was found by a university investigation to have committed scientific misconduct in his research, has strongly defended himself against the accusations.

The debate, conducted through opposing essays posted informally on the Princeton professor’s web page, has surfaced five years after Hauser’s book was first published.

Gilbert Harmancq, a philosopher at Princeton, first posted an early draft of an essay raising questions about possible plagiarism in Hauser’s 2006 book a few weeks ago and then took it down, saying it needed further revision. Now, he has posted the revised essay, which again raises the question of whether Hauser’s 2006 book gives enough credit to the 2000 doctoral thesis of John Mikhailcq, a graduate student at Cornell University who is now a law professor at Georgetown University. Hauser has submitted a response, addressing Harman’s accusations and further explaining the influence Mikhail had on him as well as the influence of other scholars. Mikhail, who recently published a book based on the work he began in his doctoral thesis, declined to comment.

“Some of the central ideas of Hauser’s book and many of its details seemed to me to be clearly indebted to Mikhail’s work, although this indebtedness was mostly unmentioned,” Harman wrote.


Mikhail is referenced nine times in Hauser’s book, according to Harman’s analysis, including in the acknowledgments: “A special thanks ... to John Mikhail, whose thesis on Rawls’ linguistic analogy greatly influenced my own thinking.”

Harman explains in his essay that the “relevant type of plagiarism would have to include ‘theft of ideas’,” rather than the blatant copying of blocks of text. He lists specific instances where he thinks more credit should have been given and cites various policies that define “theft of an idea” as plagiarism. Ultimately, he concludes that adequate attribution was not given. He notes that colleagues have not agreed with all of his arguments.


Hauser has responded with a two-page essay that rebut the accusations leveled by Harman.

“These accusations confuse ordinary intellectual influence for malfeasance, while grossly distorting the history of my ideas and their influence,” Hauser wrote.

Hauser describes his respect for Mikhail and the intellectual influence the younger scholar’s work had on him, which he notes are acknowledged in his book. He writes that he and Mikhail have collaborated with each other and also both worked with Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist whose ideas were crucial to the development of the central idea in question.

“Moral Minds owes its greatest debt to the writings of Chomsky. This in no way undermines Mikhail’s important work, which is acknowledged,” Hauser wrote.

A first draft of the document circulated online weeks earlier. At the time, Elizabeth Spelke, a psychology professor at Harvard University who served as informal adviser to Mikhail when he was writing his thesis and has also collaborated with Hauser, said that she was not in a position to judge whether enough attribution was given.

“I did read his [Mikhail’s] brilliant thesis, which as Harman notes contains much of the material that propelled Marc Hauser’s later research,” Spelke wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. But she said she couldn’t comment on the adequacy of the attribution. “I can say that Marc and his students did a great deal of research -- web-based studies, studies of patients, etc --that further tested these ideas.”


Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @globecarolynyj.