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Former Harvard Psychologist Fabricated and Falsified, Report Says

Marc Hauser (Gaye Gerard, Getty Images)

Marc Hauser was once among the big, impressive names in psychology, head of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory at Harvard University, author of popular books like Moral Minds. That reputation unraveled when a university investigation found him responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct, which led to his resignation last year.

Now the federal Office of Research Integrity has released its report on Hauser’s actions, determining that he fabricated and falsified results from experiments. Here is a sampling:

  • Hauser published “fabricated data” in a paper on how cotton-top tamarin monkeys learn rules. In one of the graphs “half of the data” was made up. That paper has since been retracted.
  • Hauser falsified coding in two other experiments with tamarins “making the results statistically significant when the results coded by others showed them to be nonsignificant.” Those experiments were not published after members of Hauser’s lab objected that his coding was wrong.
  • Again in an experiment involving tamarin monkeys, Hauser “falsely described the methodology used to code the results for experiments” that led to “a false proportion or number of animals showing a favorable response.”

Hauser “neither admits nor denies” any research misconduct but, according to the report, accepts the findings. He has agreed to three years of extra scrutiny of any federally supported research he conducts, though the requirement may be moot considering that Hauser is no longer employed by a university. Hauser says in a written statement that he is currently “focusing on at-risk youth”; his LinkedIn profile lists him as a co-founder of Gamience, an e-learning company.

In the statement, Hauser calls the five years of investigation into his research “a long and painful period.” He also acknowledges making mistakes, but seems to blame his actions on being stretched too thin. “I tried to do too much, teaching courses, running a large lab of students, sitting on several editorial boards, directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard, conducting multiple research collaborations, and writing for the general public,” he writes.

He also implies that some of the blame may actually belong to others in his lab. Writes Hauser: “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.”

But that take—the idea that the problems were caused mainly by Hauser’s inattention—doesn’t square with the story told by those in his laboratory. A former research assistant, who was among those who blew the whistle on Hauser, writes in an e-mail that while the report “does a pretty good job of summing up what is known,” it nevertheless “leaves off how hard his co-authors, who were his at-will employees and graduate students, had to fight to get him to agree not to publish the tainted data.”

The former research assistant points out that the report takes into account only the research that was flagged by whistle-blowers. “He betrayed the trust of everyone that worked with him, and especially those of us who were under him and who should have been able to trust him,” the research assistant writes.

As detailed in this Chronicle article, several members of his laboratory double-checked Hauser’s coding of an experiment and concluded he was falsifying the results so that those results would support the hypothesis, turning a failed experiment into a success. In 2007 they brought that and other evidence to Harvard officials, who began an investigation, raiding Hauser’s lab and seizing computers.

Gerry Altmann believes the report is significant because it finds that Hauser falsified data—that is, investigators found that Hauser didn’t just make up findings, but actually changed findings to suit his purposes. Altmann is the editor of a journal, Cognition, that published a 2002 paper by Hauser that has since been retracted. When you falsify data, Altmann writes in an e-mail, “you are deliberately reporting as true something that you know is not.”

Altmann takes issue with Hauser’s explanation that he simply had too many irons in the fire. “I don’t call falsification and fabrication ‘letting important details get away from my control,’” he writes. As for whether Hauser can ever return to the laboratory, Altmann thinks that, even though the sanctions for his misconduct last three years, the “field has a memory that lasts beyond” that time frame.

When asked whether he thinks he might resurrect his research career at some point, Hauser writes in an e-mail, “I would hope so.”

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