Friday, 27 August 2010

Harvard misconduct: setting the record straight

Here is my official response to, and interpretation of, the investigation by Harvard University into the circumstances that led to the retraction of an article published in 2002 in the journal Cognition (before my time as Editor-in-Chief, but that is irrelevant). I’m posting this here to avoid any misunderstanding given that my comments to the press will likely be misquoted. At least now, I can point them to this blog, and save myself a lot of phone calls.

The article was multi-authored, but the retraction of this article attributed to Professor Marc Hauser sole responsibility for the need to retract the article. Anyone who does not know who that is can simply skip this post.

As Editor of the journal Cognition, I was given access to the results of the investigation into the allegations of misconduct against Marc Hauser as they pertained to the paper published in Cognition in 2002 which has now been retracted. My understanding from those results is the following: the monkeys were trained on what we might call two different grammars (i.e. underlying patterns of sequences of syllables). One group of monkeys were trained on Grammar A, and another group on Grammar B. At test, they were given, according to the published paper, one sequence from Grammar A, and another sequence from Grammar B - so for each monkey, one sequence was drawn from the "same" grammar as it had been trained on, and the other sequence was drawn from the "different" grammar. The critical test was whether their response to the "different" sequence was different to their response to the "same" sequence (this would then allow the conclusion, as reported in the paper, that the monkeys were able to discriminate between the two underlying grammars). On investigation of the original videotapes, it was found that the monkeys had only been tested on sequences from the "different" grammar  - that is, the different underlying grammatical patterns to those they had been trained on.  There was no evidence they had been tested on sequences from the "same" grammar (that is, with the same underlying grammatical patterns). Why is this important? Because if you just tested the monkeys on one underlying pattern, and you record how many times they turn around to look towards the hidden loudspeaker (this is how it was done), perhaps they would turn round as often if they heard **anything** coming from that speaker. So you'd need to include the "same" condition - that is, the sequence of syllables that had the same underlying pattern as the monkey had been trained on, to show that the monkeys *discriminated* between (i.e. turned a different number of times in response to) the different grammars.

It would therefore appear that the description of the study in the Cognition paper was incorrect (because the stimuli used during testing were not as described), and that the experiment *as run* did not allow any conclusions to be drawn regarding monkeys' ability to distinguish between different grammatical patterns. Given that there is no evidence that the data, as reported, were in fact collected (it is not plausible to suppose, for example, that each of the two test trials were recorded onto different videotapes, or that somehow all the videotapes from the same condition were lost or mislaid), and given that the reported data were subjected to statistical analyses to show how they supported the paper's conclusions, I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here, using data that appear to have been fabricated, to deceive the field into believing something for which there was in fact no evidence at all. This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic misconduct. However, this is just conjecture; I note that the investigation found no explanation for the discrepancy between what was found on the videotapes and what was reported in the paper. Perhaps, therefore, the data were not fabricated, and there
is some hitherto undiscovered or undisclosed explanation. But I do assume that if the investigation had uncovered a more plausible alternative explanation (and I know that the investigation was rigorous to the extreme), it would not have found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct.

As a further bit of background, it’s probably worth knowing that according to the various definitions of misconduct, simply losing your data does not constitute misconduct. Losing your data just constitutes stupidity.