Accused Harvard Scientist Should Be Vindicated

By Pierre Pica

Editor’s Note: Pierre Pica is acquainted with Marc Hauser. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pierre Pica.

Last year, Harvard University accused Professor Marc Hauser of scientific misconduct. This is one of the most serious accusations that can be leveled against a scientist. However, new facts in this case indicate that Dr. Hauser should be exonerated.

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On August 20, 2010, Harvard announced that Hauser was being accused of eight cases of misconduct, three involving published papers and five involving unpublished papers. Because the work of a scientist had been called into question, it was now up to him to show that his data had not been fabricated or falsified.

Scientifically, this amounts to demonstrating whether the data can be replicated. Scientific misconduct is defined by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity as falsification, fabrication or plagiarism. However, out of the three published papers under scrutiny, two have now been replicated, one in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and another in Science. Thus, these results call into question the accusations of fabrication and falsification.

The third published paper in question was retracted by Hauser. He claims the retraction was due to a mistake, not due to any manipulation of the data. His claim is supported by two facts. First, Harvard did not require Hauser to admit to misconduct of any kind and accepted the retraction at face value. Second, because the data in the first two publications were replicated, it is unlikely that the data in the third paper was fabricated. Additionally, studies conducted by scholars not connected to Hauser have supported his claims.

So, what is left? The five remaining unpublished manuscripts were never even submitted for publication.  Thus, an examination of Hauser’s current record will reveal only one retraction (the general claim of which is not in question) out of some 250 published papers. This is very little evidence on which to base such a big claim as scientific misconduct.

Furthermore, Hauser has directed a lab of 30 or more undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and research assistants, many of whom have gone on to hold prestigious professorships. If Hauser was running a truly slipshod operation, it is unlikely that his students would fare so well. Besides, no professor can be vigilant of every detail in such a large laboratory, not only for reasons of time, but also for reasons of authority. Good investigators are not micromanagers.

The way in which Hauser’s case was handled raises serious concerns for the scientific community. A formal inquiry scrutinizing unpublished notes or analyzing abandoned or corrected methodologies does not seem acceptable. (This should have been one of the lessons of “Climategate.”) Which scientists would want to work under conditions in which all their unpublished manuscripts and e-mail correspondences are open to public inquiry and legal scrutiny? Which scientists have prepared manuscripts that do not contain mistakes, differences of opinion, or biases? Answer: None. Flawed manuscripts are a part of the scientific process.

Hauser’s case has been in the media spotlight for a long year, and Hauser himself has been under inquiry for almost four years. Justice must be done quickly. There are reasons to believe that Harvard will come to the right decision. However, scientists everywhere should remain vigilant since any of us could find ourselves in Hauser’s situation if Orwellian methods of inquiry are implemented throughout the scientific community.

Pierre Pica is a Research Fellow at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris.

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