In the summer of 2007, while the scientist Marc Hauser was in Australia, Harvard University authorities entered his lab on the tenth floor of William James Hall, seizing computers, videotapes, unpublished manuscripts and notes. Hauser, then 47, was a professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology. He was popular with students and a prolific researcher and author, with more than 200 papers and several books to his name. His most recent book, Moral Minds (2006), discusses the biological bases of human morality. Noam Chomsky called it “a lucid, expert, and challenging introduction to a rapidly developing field with great promise and far-reaching implications”; for Peter Singer, it is “a major contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature of ethics.”
Three years after the seizure of materials from Hauser’s lab, the Boston Globe leaked news of a secret investigating committee at Harvard that had found Hauser “solely responsible” for “eight counts of scientific misconduct.” Michael Smith, Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, confirmed the existence of the investigation on August 20, 2010. Hauser took a leave of absence, telling the New York Times, “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes,” and adding that he was “deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my colleagues and my university.” At the time he was working on a new book titled Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. In February 2011 a large majority of the faculty of Harvard’s psychology department voted against allowing Hauser to teach in the coming academic year. On July 7 he resigned his professorship effective August 1. Hauser has neither publicly admitted to nor denied having engaged in scientific misconduct.
Science is driven by two powerful motivations—to discover the “truth,” while acknowledging how fleeting it can be, and to achieve recognition through publication in prominent journals, through grant support to continue and expand research, and through promotion, prizes and memberships in prestigious scientific societies. The search for scientific truth may be seriously derailed by the desire for recognition, which may result in scientific misconduct.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the main sources of research funds in the United States, have defined scientific misconduct in research as involving fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. “Fabrication” is making up data; “falsification” is altering or selecting data. This definition of misconduct has been adopted by other federal agencies and most scientific societies and research institutions. Explicitly excluded from the category of scientific misconduct are “honest error or differences of opinion”; other types of misconduct, such as sexual harassment, animal abuse and misuse of grant funds, are targeted by other prevention and enforcement mechanisms.
Scientific misconduct is not necessarily a sign of a decline of ethics among scientists today or of the increased competition for tenure and research funds. Accusations of scientific misconduct, sometimes well supported, pepper the history of science from the Greek natural philosophers onward. Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168), the greatest astronomer of antiquity, has been accused of using without attribution observations of stars made by his predecessor Hipparchus of Rhodes (162–127 BCE), who himself had used much earlier Babylonian observations as if they were his own. Isaac Newton used “fudge factors” to better fit data to his theories. In his studies of hereditary characteristics, Gregor Mendel reported near perfect ratios, and therefore statistically very unlikely ratios, from his pea-plant crossings. When Mendel crossed hybrid plants, he predicted and found that exactly one-third were pure dominants and two-thirds were hybrids. The high unlikelihood of getting exact 1:3 ratios was first pointed out in 1911 by R.A. Fisher, the founder of modern statistics and a founder of population genetics, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Though Charles Darwin has been cleared of accusations of nicking the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, he seems to have only reluctantly credited some of his predecessors.