Another Comment on the Hauser Scandal

I’m one of the many academics astonished by the recent scandal in which serious accusations of research misconduct have been leveled against Marc Hauser of Harvard University. If you’re not aware of the scandal, Hauser is essentially accused of misreporting behavior of Rhesus monkeys then intimidating the graduate students in his lab into following his interpretation.

I do give Harvard kudos for following up on an anonymous complaint from one of the students in the lab. In fact it appears, that all the graduate students will be cleared.

I think it’s safe to say Hauser’s reputation will not be the same, but what about the rest of it? If reports are accurate, this misconduct did not apply to one experiment, but represented a pattern which several students knew about. As another primate researcher Frans de Waal asks, “Another more sensitive issue is, how many people knew about the misconduct, or how many could have known about or suspected it? Advisors, students, postdocs, close colleagues? Was the scientist solely responsible, as the dean claims, or is there more to worry about?”

It’s a legitimate question, but a part of me is surprised this doesn’t happen more often. Who really would have both the knowledge and the standing to say something is misconduct were occurring. Really, the only other people most familiar with the data would likely be the graduate students, and it would be very difficult for them to say something. There’s a reason the report is anonymous….

Or to put it another way, how many times have you been in a situation where a boss or co-worker has done something you find questionable – yet you said nothing. If you do say something, are you labeled as being argumentative? Not a team player? I know I’ve been on both sides on this one, and neither position leads to a good night’s sleep. I’m glad Dr de Waal adds “the students who exposed the misconduct deserve praise” to his questions of responsibility. I bet it was a tough situation for all of them.

I don’t know how to resolve a system for checking scientific data or even allowing for whistleblowers to feel safe. I do believe that an ethical climate starts from the top. Both in modelling behavior and for allowing people to provide feedback (it’s one reason democracies are better than dictatorships). I’ve been in situations where people I am “leading” have told me what I’m doing wrong. It can be annoying, but it does have one benefit – at least I have a clue that I may need to rethink something critical before something really goes irretrievably wrong.

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