New Frontiers: Marc Hauser back publishing in scientific literature

frontiers psychMarc Hauser, the psychology researcher who resigned from Harvard and was found by the Office of Research Integrity to have committed misconduct, has published two new papers.

Both papers appear in Frontiers in Psychology, the journal whose retraction of a controversial paper on conspiracy ideation and climate skepticism was, by the editors’ own admission, handled badly.

Here’s the abstract to “The mystery of language evolution:”

Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, 1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; 2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; 3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; 4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.

Hauser is first author. His co-authors include some heavy hitters: Noam Chomsky, of MIT, and Richard Lewontin, of Harvard (who co-taught Ivan’s college evolution class with Stephen Jay Gould), among others.

Hauser’s other paper is “Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution:”

The importance of game theoretic models to evolutionary theory has been in formulating elegant equations that specify the strategies to be played and the conditions to be satisfied for particular traits to evolve. These models, in conjunction with experimental tests of their predictions, have successfully described and explained the costs and benefits of varying strategies and the dynamics for establishing equilibria in a number of evolutionary scenarios, including especially cooperation, mating, and aggression. Over the past decade or so, game theory has been applied to model the evolution of language. In contrast to the aforementioned scenarios, however, we argue that these models are problematic due to conceptual confusions and empirical difficiences. In particular, these models conflate the comptutations and representations of our language faculty (mechanism) with its utility in communication (function); model languages as having different fitness functions for which there is no evidence; depend on assumptions for the starting state of the system, thereby begging the question of how these systems evolved; and to date, have generated no empirical studies at all. Game theoretic models of language evolution have therefore failed to advance how or why language evolved, or why it has the particular representations and computations that it does. We conclude with some brief suggestions for how this situation might be ameliorated, enabling this important theoretical tool to make substantive empirical contributions.

Hat tips: Krishna Pillai, Rolf Degen

19 thoughts on “New Frontiers: Marc Hauser back publishing in scientific literature”

  1. I predict (and even hope) that Frontiers in Psychology will soon follow Dr. Hauser into the dustbin of history.

    1. Prediction based on what? Marc Hauser was caught cheating, and lost his job. Does that mean that he has absolutely nothing of value to say about anything? As long as he does not collect data, I’m open to logical arguments made by anyone.

      1. My (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) prediction was based on reasons that the other commenters bring up below, and also on the fact that, as pointed out by Ivan/Adam, this is the very same journal that just made the rounds of news headlines for all the wrong reasons, regarding the conspiracy ideation paper. This journal seems to be making a series of bone-headed moves. As someone NOT in the field, I think it’s a bad sign that I only hear of this journal after it’s published something controversial. As CR notes below, maybe that’s what the editors are going for?

        More broadly, I think there are many talented and well-deserving researchers out there who deserve to have their viewpoints heard, but who have less of a chance of doing so because folks like Dr. Hauser continue to clog the literature. I am willing to bet that his notoriety contributed to this article being published, and if so that’s a shame.

        1. How many papers does Frontiers in Psychology publish every year? How many negative headlines have you read about it? What is the ratio? Think about Science. Think about PNAS. This about PLOS. They all have had some bad papers and some bad headlines at some point. I’m not a fan of Frontiers, but they do provide an alternative outlet that enables the field to read about worthy findings that would not get published in the older journals. Not all the papers that keep getting rejected by the older journals are bad. Some are rejected and never get published because the reviewers are competitors.

        2. “More broadly, I think there are many talented and well-deserving researchers out there who deserve to have their viewpoints heard, but who have less of a chance of doing so because folks like Dr. Hauser continue to clog the literature.”

          I’m unsure how this paper is *clogging* the literature. One benefit of open access publishing is that there is no arbitrary limit on the number of “publication slots” available based on print budgets. In a world of print journals, there may be two papers of indistinguishable quality competing for a single slot. Since Frontiers/PLoS ONE have no page limits, I don’t see how literature can get clogged.

          1. Individual submissions still require the handling of an editor and other members of the publication staff, thus “clogging” the submission pipeline. Perhaps if all disciplines moved to an ArXiv model, this might not be an issue. “Frontiers” seems to have taken the step of pro-actively recruiting editors, reviewers, etc., to try to keep up with the sheer volume of material submitted to its various journals. And a quick google search of the issue will reveal that its behavior has left a sour taste in the mouths of some.

            Furthermore, these “Frontiers” journals are still playing the same impact-factor game that the print journals do, and as such there is still competition for space to get into such journals. To the extent that having a name for yourself (no matter how disgraced) matters with respect to where you can publish, this also is a form of “clogging” the literature.

          2. I agree with Tom. Literature clogging is a real issue when you’re trying to write up literature reviews for publications. You have to read and critically analyse through so many much material (many of which these days are pretty much junk or repetitive information) just to write up your discussion section.

  2. Regarding the language evolution paper, this post at A Replicated Typo lays out some instances in which the authors pontificate, fail to cite their own contrary work, and ignore progress in entire fields:

    The article wilfully resists interfacing with these concepts and the wider field. There are some entirely unsubstantiated claims, and statements like “The distribution of the structural properties of language, such as word order and agreement, do not seem to follow any cultural or historical patterns”, ignore empirical work on this topic (e.g. Dunn et al.). The absence of all the authors from the recent Evolution of Language conference is notable, where they might have been able to interact with current research and learn of new discoveries that could address some of their problems…

    Not exactly a humble, contrite return to academic publishing. And so many big names went along for the ride.

  3. I ought to say that I read more than one fishy paper in “Frontiers…” series lately. They go for polemic topics to hit impact factor but maybe they should be more scientific on their selection of papers.

    1. Inetrestingly, for the past 24 hours, not a single PDF file in the journal Frontiers in Plant Sciences ( can be accessed. All links give a HTTP Error 404.0 – Not Found message. This is really bad considering that this is an open access journal that needs to be accessible 24/7/365. In this day and age, a scientists not being able to access an OA journal’s content is as bad as not being able to check your emails or social media profiles a few times daily.

      1. “This is really bad considering that this is an open access journal that needs to be accessible 24/7/365.”

        This is the internet in 2014. Nothing can be available 24/7/365. Things on the internet are constantly being messed up. Things that have major consequences for people’s health, wellbeing and financial security (which allows people to buy food). Heartbleed. The Target credit card scandal. The list goes on. Any scientists who *needs* instant access to a specific publication isn’t a very good scientist. If frontiers goes down for a day or two, no one will lose their home, die or not have dinner that night.

        We aren’t talking about disappearing papers or corrections being made without notices. In fact, all of the authors, reviewers and editors are listed on these papers. If there is a serious flaw with these two papers that most scientists would agree should warrant rejection, perhaps an e-mail to these folks for explanation would be appropriate.

        1. Never had access problems with many OA journals I read frequently, what to say of paid ones. I am not sure if 2014 has been presenting more internet issues that previous years, this is an interesting thing to check.

      2. Are you implying that one of the side effect of this new paper by Hauser is the crashing of the Frontiers in Plant Sciences website?
        For the record, as of today the website seems to be working fine.

        1. I am not implying anything. In fact, despite my criticisms, FiPS represents a refreshing outlook and representation for the plant sciences, except for the publishing fees. I have not looked deeply at all papers, but from the 1271 papers published to date, alot are of really good level and include alot of the status quo and heavy-hitters in plant science (in a positive way). Of course, I have not analyzed the papers in depth, so the lack of site functionality is not related to any quality-related parameter of the academics, only of the functionality of the site. Out of curiosity, I did enter the term “Erratum” into the search engine at Frontiers, and found that:
          132 search results
          One curious duplication (without any clear explanation):
          Typical erratum: (the odd thing is that most of the links to the errata clearly explain what is being corrected! Either that or no appropriate link to the main body of erratum text is provided. Either way, a reason for concern and no way of understanding how the publisher erred.)
          An example of a carefully explained erratum (a rarity):

          A search for “corrigendum” revealed 32 search results:
          Same problem as the errata. The links provided do not actually indicate exactly how the authors have erred, although there are some clear corrigenda e.g.

          A search for “retraction” revealed 617 results, but most were links to retractions from other journals, e.g., the Lancet Oncology: I could not decipher which retractons were specific to Frontiers journals only. Maybe someone has a better way of filtering the results to detect the retracted papers?

    2. “They go for polemic topics to hit impact factor but maybe they should be more scientific on their selection of papers.”

      This accusation seems a bit extreme. I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that these journals “go{es} for polemic topics” considering that they at least profess to publish without regard for impact of submissions. Given that a journal can only publish what has been submitted to it, it might be more fair to argue that they may be more willing to publish polemic topics than other journals?

      Further, what, exactly, is wrong with publishing hot topics if people have opinions on them? Perhaps journals should only publish papers that people don’t want to read.

      1. Perhaps good scientific journal should publish crude observations without glossing them over or sexying them up. Scientific literature is for adding knowledge, nor exactly for entertaining the reader what to say for helping publishers increase their profit by selling magazines.
        The big readership prefers spending more time on Discovery Channel than reading e.g. the Kinsey’s report. Going for the majority, for the most popular (higher impact, if you will) is bound to be detrimental to quality and reliability, as reality behind facts is normally not that “interesting/amazing” upon a simple glance.
        A paper from Frontiers in Zoology named “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field” essentially tries to show with intricate figures that their is a global pattern in the way dogs turn around before leaving their droppings. They do cannot explain why. I have serious doubts this it is reproducible, as my dog follows no pattern. But who cares, everyone had a good laugh with the paper and is happy.

      2. While the “Frontiers” journals certainly publish good work as well, I do wonder how such a paper can get by:

        OK, it is labeled as an “opinion article”. But I have a hard time even understanding it……
        The authors promote their idea of “Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics”. They seem to actually suggest that you can detect not only breast cancer but also a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation by simply using a stethoscope. Or something like that. I cannot really tell, because the text is close to incomprehensible, IMHO.
        This little gem was accepted one day after receipt and was reviewed by the editor. Maybe that’s how they do it in “Frontiers”, but IMHO an opinion article should receive external review.

        1. Persuing the reference to “Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics”, I found my way to the eponymous Journal of Quantum Biophysical Semeiotics, where I noticed that the publisher’s website regularly abbreviates that publication’s name (for instance, in URLs) to
          “joqbs”. That says it all.

  4. CR: You might want to share you opinion re external review with Science, Nature and PNAS.

    I have had — or know of — experiences with all three (even serving as a guest editor for one) in which an article was rejected by the editor (me) absent any external review.

    Is this fair? Probably not — but it is institutionalized, and not restricted to Frontiers (in fact, having dealt with them as well, their peer review process can be quite extensive in terms of review-author back and forth).

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