Monkey business? 2002 Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard
Marc Hauser, a prominent Harvard psychology researcher and author, will be taking a leave of absence from the university following “a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory” that has led to the retraction of one of his papers, according to The Boston Globe.
The retraction, of a 2002 paper in Cognition, reads, in part: “An internal examination at Harvard University . . . found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article,” the Globe reports. It also includes the sentence “MH accepts responsibility for the error.”
The retraction notice does not yet appear anywhere on the journal’s site, where the PDF version of the study is still available, nor on the Medline abstract. Its circumstances appear to be atypical, according to the Globe:
The editor of Cognition, Gerry Altmann, said in an interview that he had not been told what specific errors had been made in the paper, which is unusual. “Generally when a manuscript is withdrawn, in my experience at any rate, we know a little more background than is actually published in the retraction,’’ he said. “The data not supporting the findings is ambiguous.’’
Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and one of the co-authors of the paper, said he drafted the introduction and conclusions of the paper, based on data that Hauser collected and analyzed.
“Professor Hauser alerted me that he was concerned about the nature of the data, and suggested that there were problems with the videotape record of the study,’’ Marcus wrote in an e-mail. “I never actually saw the raw data, just his summaries, so I can’t speak to the exact nature of what went wrong.’’
Hauser, whose studies learning in monkeys, was an associate editor of the journal during 2002 when the paper was published, according to his online bio. Obviously, he would have recused himself from reviewing his own work. [See update at end.]
The paper has been cited 86 times by other studies, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge (disclosure: Reuters Health, where Ivan works, is obviously also part of Thomson Reuters).
The investigation has led to questions about two other studies, the Globe notes. In a “replication” of a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Hauser and a co-author note:
It has been discovered that the video records and field notes collected by the researcher who performed the experiments (D. Glynn) are incomplete for two of the conditions. Following the discovery of the incomplete video records and field notes, Wood and Hauser returned to Cayo Santiago to re-run the three main experimental conditions reported in the paper, videotaping every trial and accompanying the video records with field notes.
Glynn is not a co-author on the replication paper. The 2007 Royal Proceedings study has been cited seven times.
In case anyone still wonders about the effects of retractions on the scientific process, or why we make a note of how often papers in question have been cited here on Retraction Watch, here’s what a researcher in Hauser’s field told the Globe:
“This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in an e-mail. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’
Update, 4:20 p.m. Eastern, 8/10/10: Cognition editor Gerry Altmann returned an email we sent him after this post went live. We asked him for the text of the retraction, and for some context on how associate editors’ work was handled during peer review.
The text of the retraction, which is in press and will appear in an upcoming issue:
An internal examination at Harvard University of the research reported in “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” Cognition 86 (2002), pp. B15-B22, found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article. MH accepts responsibility for the error.
On Hauser’s position as an associate editor at Cognition during the time this paper was published:
I cannot comment on how papers from editorial board members or associate editors were handled back in 2002 as I was not the editor then. The procedure now is that papers from editorial board members are handled in exactly the same way as regular submissions – no special privileges. The same is true for papers by associate editors (or authored by associate editors). The only difference is that I handle all manuscripts by associate editors, rather than passing them on to one of the other associates. Also, if an associate editor is an author, they are ‘blinded’ within the system so that he/she cannot find out who is reviewing his/her paper. When I’ve been an author (only happened once, while I’ve been editor, but it was a resubmission of something submitted before I was editor), that was handled by one of the associates. Again, I was blinded from the review process. In fact, a close colleague of mine with whom I publish a lot of my work has submitted to the journal and I have even blinded myself to that, even though I am not involved in that research. I wanted to ensure there was no suggestion of influence. I have actually had occasion to reject manuscripts submitted by associate editors – they know the score!
I was not aware until you pointed it out that Hauser was an associate editor back in 2002 – I did know he had been an editor, but I didn’t know the year. However, I do suspect that he had no involvement in the publication of his own paper. And as originally published, it was a good paper, worthy of publication in a journal such as Cognition. Of course, now we know differently. But I do not believe there could have been any impropriety in the manner of the paper’s publication. Whether there has been impropriety in the handling/analysis of the data is another matter, and one that Harvard University might wish to clarify, but I have no direct information one way or another.
Hat tip to Evidence Matters, who alerted us to Globe piece on Twitter