The Twitts are all atwitter today about a case of academic misconduct. As reported in the Boston Globe:
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.
There is an ongoing investigation and other allegations or admissions of scientific misconduct or fraud. More observations from the Nature blog The Great Beyond and NeuroSkeptic. We'll simply have to see how that plays out. I have a few observations on the coverage so far however. Let's start with the minor ones.
The PubMed page and the ScienceDirect publishers page have no indication that this paper has been retracted. I did a quick search for retraction, for Hauser and for tamarin on the ScienceDirect site and did not find any evidence of a published retraction notice by this method either. The Boston Globe article is datelined today but still. You would think that the publishers would have been informed of this situation loooong before it went public and would have the retraction linkage ready to roll.
The accusation in the paper correction by Hauser is, as is traditional, that the trainee faked it. As NeuroSkeptic points out, the overall investigation spans papers published well beyond the trainee in question's time in the lab. Situations like this start posing questions in my mind about the tone and tenor of the lab and how that might influence the actions of a trainee. Not saying misconduct can't be the lone wolf actions of a single bad apple. I'm sure that happens a lot. But I am equally sure that it is possible for a PI to set a tone of, let us say, pressure to produce data that point in a certain direction.
What really bothered me about the Globe coverage was this, however. They associate a statement like this one:
In 2001, in a study in the American Journal of Primatology, Hauser and colleagues reported that they had failed to replicate the results of the previous study. The original paper has never been retracted or corrected.
Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.
“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence — scientific or otherwise — that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,’’ Gallup said in an interview.
In 1997, he co-authored a critique of the original paper, and Hauser and a co-author responded with a defense of the work.
What I am worried about in this type of coverage is the conflation of a failure to replicate a study with the absence of evidence (per the retraction blaming a trainee) with scientific debate over the interpretation of data.
The mere failure of an investigation to be able to replicate a prior one is not in and of itself evidence of scientific misconduct. Scientific findings, legitimate ones, can be difficult or impossible to replicate for many reasons and even if we criticize the credulity, scientific rigor or methods of the original finding, it is not misconduct. (Just so long as the authors report what they did and what they found in a manner consistent with the practices of their fields and the journals in which their data are published.) Even the much vaunted p<0.05 standard means that we recognize that 5 times out of a hundred experiments we are going to accept chance events as a causal chain resulting from our experimental manipulation.
Similarly, debates over what behavioral observation researchers think they see in animal behavior is not in and of itself evidence of misconduct. I mean, sure, if nobody other than the TruBelievers can ever see any smidge of evidence of the Emperor's fine clothes in the videotapes proffered as evidence by a given lab, we might write them off as cranks. But this is, at this point, most obviously a debate about research design, controls, alternative hypothesis and potential confounds in the approach. The quote from Gordon Gallup taken in greater isolation (as in The Great Beyond blog entry) makes it sound more like perhaps he's a disinterested party brought in as part of the investigation of scientific fraud when used in this context. In fact he appears to be a regular scientific critic of Hauser's work. Gallup might be right, but I don't like the way scientific debate is being conflated with scientific misconduct in this way.
Retraction Watch: including the text of the retraction to be published and a comment on Hauser serving as associate editor at the journal when his paper was handled.
John Hawks Weblog
melodye at Child's Play
New York Times
Disclaimer: I come from a behaviorist tradition and and am more than a little skeptical of research traditions in the comparative cognition tradition that Hauser inhabits.