Carolyn Y. Johnson, "Author on leave after Harvard inquiry", Boston Globe 8/10′/2010:
Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.
The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.
Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.
It is unusual for a scientist as prominent as Hauser — a popular professor and eloquent communicator of science whose work has often been featured on television and in newspapers — to be named in an investigation of scientific misconduct. His research focuses on the evolutionary roots of the human mind.
Heidi Ledford ("Harvard morality researcher investigated for scientific misconduct", Nature 8/10/2010) gives links to the three papers that have apparently been under scrutiny. All involve experiments on non-human primates, but the list of papers under investigation does not include the monkey paper from Hauser's lab that we've discussed most extensively here: W. Tecumseh Fitch and Marc D. Hauser, "Computational Constraints on Syntactic Processing in a Nonhuman Primate", Science 303(5656):377-380, 16 January 2004.
That paper tested cotton-top tamarins' habituation to very simple stimulus patterns (ABAB and ABABAB vs. AABB and AAABBB), and on that basis made general claims about their ability to process infinite classes of grammars generating indefinitely long strings of symbols. At the time, this seemed to me to be one of the most enthusiastically over-interpreted results ever to appear in a major scientific journal.
In addition, I felt that the experiments didn't really engage the mechanisms for composing and decomposing linguistic messages at all, but rather explored the mechanisms of auditory texture discrimination, whose connection to linguistic processing is at best unproved. And even in regards to texture perception, I thought that several simple and plausible explanations were being disregarded in favor of more complex (and headline-worthy) stories.
For details, see
"Hi Lo Hi Lo, it's off to formal language theory we go", 1/17/2004
"Humans context-free, monkeys finite-state? Apparently not", 8/31/2004
"Rhyme schemes, texture discrimination and monkey syntax", 02/09/2006
"Learnable and unlearnable patterns — of what?", 02/25/2006
"The texture of time: Even educated fleas do it", 11/24/2009
For a nice summary, see Geoff Pullum's post "Recognizing grammar (or door chime changes, or anything)", 6/22/2009.
And for a broader survey of some of the headline-worthy evolutionary issues that the tamarin experiments were meant to engage, see "JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF", 8/25/2005.
Like many other linguists, Geoff and I have felt from the beginning that the results of Hauser's monkey experiments were of dubious relevance to the evolution of speech and language. Now we're forced to question whether there were any reliable results at all.
The Globe article says,
Much remains unclear, including why the investigation took so long, the specifics of the misconduct, and whether Hauser’s leave is a punishment for his actions.
But it doesn't look good. As Neuroskeptic points out ("Hauser Of Cards", 8/10/2010), "the only author who appears on all of the papers known to be under scrutiny is Marc Hauser himself".
One more general comment — it's long past time for scientists to start publishing their raw data along with their conclusions, and for publishers to take steps to make this not only possible but easy. Reproducible research: it's the right thing to do.
[Update 8/12/2010 — survey of reactions here; more from Carolyn Johnson at the Boston Globe here; Nicholas Wade, "Expert on Morality Is on Leave After Research Inquiry", NYT 8/11/2010; and "Inquiry on Harvard Lab Threatens Ripple Effect", 8/12/2010.]
[8/13/2010 — more commentary on the lack of information in Carolyn Johnson, "Harvard to rectify journal works", Boston Globe 8/13/2010.]
[8/14/2010 — Nicholas Wade, "In Harvard Lab Inquiry, a Raid and a 3-Year Wait", NYT 8/13/2010:
Marc Hauser’s academic career was soaring when suddenly, three years ago, Harvard authorities raided his laboratory and confiscated computers and records. […]
In January this year, a faculty committee at last completed its report, said to contain eight charges against Dr. Hauser. But the report was kept secret and nothing changed until this month when someone showed The Boston Globe a letter about the investigation from Dr. Hauser to his faculty colleagues. […]
The captive animals, a colony of some 40 cotton-topped tamarins, may have contributed to the difficulties in Dr. Hauser’s laboratory. It is difficult to get the tamarins to pay attention, especially after the monkeys get used to experimenters.
“With some of these methods it was never clear to me how one could obtain meaningful results,” said a person with experience in Dr. Hauser’s lab, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The monkeys were often either jumping around, or not moving at all, and you rarely got the sense of an unambiguous response.”
Other experimental problems have come to light with three articles investigated by the Harvard committee. In two, the supporting data did not exist. Dr. Hauser and a colleague repeated the experiments, and say they got the same results as published. In a third case, Dr. Hauser retracted an article published in the journal Cognition in 2002 but gave the editor no explanation of his reason for doing so.
Whatever the problems in Dr. Hauser’s lab, they eventually led to an insurrection among his staff, said Michael Tomasello, a psychologist who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and shares Dr. Hauser’s interest in cognition and language.
“Three years ago,” Dr. Tomasello said, “when Marc was in Australia, the university came in and seized his hard drives and videos because some students in his lab said, ‘Enough is enough.’ They said this was a pattern and they had specific evidence.”