Who’s the most common type of scientific miscreant?
|December 26, 2011||Posted by News under Peer review, News|
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Harvard University authorities entered his lab on the tenth floor of William James Hall, seizing computers, videotapes, unpublished manuscripts and notes.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.
Scientists guilty of misconduct are found in every field, at every kind of research institution and with a variety of social and educational backgrounds. Yet a survey of the excellent coverage of fraud in Science and recent books on the subject—ranging from Horace Freeland Judson’s The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science (2004) to David Goodstein’s On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales From the Front Lines of Science (2010)—reveals a pattern of the most common, or modal, scientific miscreant. He is a bright and ambitious young man working in an elite institution in a rapidly moving and highly competitive branch of modern biology or medicine, where results have important theoretical, clinical or financial implications. He has been mentored and supported by a senior and respected establishment figure who is often the co-author of many of his papers but may have not been closely involved in the research.
And – in a long and most helpful article providing the background to scientific misconduct – this didn’t make the cut: Fraud is a much more likely risk if the scientist is telling the world something that the pop science media want to hear or need to believe. The researcher who, like Hauser, makes great claims for monkeys’ cognitive abilities, is far more likely to get published than the one who says, “‘I tested 1,000 cotton-top tamarinds and found them to lack such-and-such cognitive ability. The poor sot probably just wasn’t looking hard enough, right?
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