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Earlier this summer I was at a conference chatting informally with a colleague, and the topic of ethics came up.  I described hearing about a troubling case of data fabrication at my former Ph.D. institution by a rogue graduate student, how the fraud had been detected, and how it had led to disastrous impacts.  Those impacts included the retraction of several major research articles, the tragic stalling of the nascent career of an honest fellow student, and painful and embarrassing injury to several senior collaborators.

My colleague listened avidly.  After a hesitation, he offered, “There’s another case - at Harvard.  A senior person.  It will come out soon.  His career is over.” “Who?”  I asked.  I was stunned at the reply.  The person he mentioned is not only senior, but at the pinnacle of several fields—biology, anthropology, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience—with popular books, articles in the most influential journals, and regular interviews in the press as an expert on—oh, the irony—ethics.  

Marc Hauser is someone whose career I’ve admired deeply.  His topics are interdisciplinary and important and interesting to anyone concerned with the human condition and our place in the animal kingdom more broadly.  He’s published with Chomsky.  I require my graduate students to read his work.  He’s phenomenally productive, with over 200 “good” journal publications ("good" in the sense of the publication venues, that is... I’ve published in at least one of those journals, and we even have a coauthor in common).  He’s directed 20 Ph.D.s and mentored over a dozen postdocs, and the careers of these talented young scientists are now taking root in fine places.  One thing you may know about academia—we’re constantly being evaluated, which leads many of us to constantly compare our CV to those of others.  Not only have I admired Marc Hauser’s work, but I’ve envied his astounding productivity, both its quality and quantity.  I wouldn’t even have enough time to read all the things he’s written, much less write them.  Needless to say, I was disturbed by what my colleague told me.  I hoped it was a rumor—a Google search over a month ago turned up absolutely nothing (just what seemed like a few thousand interesting interviews and news articles on Hauser’s research).  

Monday the Boston Globe broke the story.  It’s horrifying.  Details have been trickling out each day since then, including in a NYTimes series by Nicholas Wade.  Some in the blogosphere, to their credit, have been slow to judge, urging that we wait for all the details to come out a full report.  Some have speculated that maybe the problem is just a failure to replicate one of his most startling, ground-breaking results (which could even mean that the scientist in question is more skilled and innovative than others who have failed to find the same result).  Others have suggested that perhaps it will turn out to be not the worst kind of misconduct, data fabrication, but simply a case of human error, disorganization, and problems with record-keeping.  That, for instance, was the finding in the well-known case ofThereza Imanishi-Kari, which for over a decade cast a shadow on the career of her accomplished collaborator David Baltimore.The ambiguity surrounding Marc Hauser's situation is deafening.

However one thing is becoming clear: It appears that the details are known by someone, and that Harvard is simply withholding them.  The investigation has concluded, not just begun.  Three years ago, when Marc Hauser was in Australia, investigators raided his lab and seized research materials.  Since then he has continued to publish, give interviews, and supervise students.  At this point, I can only imagine the suffering of those students and collaborators.  The damage to their careers has only begun. As of yesterday, one high-impact scientific article has been retracted, two have been “corrected”, and 2 more are considered to be problematic.  Unfortunately the only co-author these publications have in common is Marc Hauser.  And no one knows what to make of the rest of the considerable iceberg that is Marc Hauser’s body of work.  Can we trust it?  Should we stop citing it?  Should I remove all of his (non-retracted) writings from my graduate course?  Will there be further metastases?  Is this horrifying situation as rare among laboratories as I assume it is?  Will this nightmare end with a benign explanation?  As a scientist, I am shaken to the core.  One of the very foundations of scientific activity (and the application of its results) is trust.  The longer the details are withheld in this awful situation, the worse it gets.

Originally posted to Patience is Not a Virtue on Sat Aug 14, 2010 at 10:48 AM PDT.

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