With a fundamental research misconduct hearing approaching, a behavioral ecologist under fire for more than 2 years for data irregularities or possible fabrication in dozens of publications has resigned from his prestigious position at McMaster University, Science He learned. The Canadian school confirmed in a statement yesterday that it has reached a “confidential” agreement with Jonathan Pruitt, whose work on social behavior in spiders has garnered international acclaim and whose willingness to share data has attracted many eager collaborators.
Although Pruitt has not been employed by McMaster since July 10, according to the statement, the university has not yet revealed any conclusions from a recently completed investigation into the scientist’s research. This leaves some journal editors and researchers in the field confused as to which Pruitt’s work remains reliable and whether research misconduct has occurred. “It is fitting that Jonathan is no longer employed, hopefully in any academic institution,” says Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California (UC), Davis. “But I won’t hear from you [McMaster administrators] they did enough until they made their findings about the investigation public. … I am extremely frustrated. Laskowski first brought to light concerns about Pruitt’s data, via a blog post, in early 2020 after anomalies in a publication they co-authored were brought to his attention.
Pruitt has not yet responded to McMaster’s resignation statement but yesterday, before the university confirmed the news, he said Science in an email, “I’m nearing the time when I can talk about #PruittGate in an open forum.” (Twitter users tagged the ecologists research discussions #PruittGate in 2020, when the controversy erupted.)
Pruitt, who was named Canada 150 Research Chair in 2018, a position assigned to just 24 scientists in the country at the time, was put on administrative leave by McMaster in November 2021, after the university concluded an initial investigation into the concerns. raised by Laskowski and others. At the time, the institute did not release details on its findings, and both the university and Pruitt said the misconduct review process was not complete.
This spring, lawyers hired by the university asked several researchers who raised questions about Pruitt’s data to testify at a hearing on the researcher; whose date had not been announced. “There would have been an internal investigation [that] involved the testimony of expert witnesses who might be talking about problems with the scientific data, “says Daniel Bolnick, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who as editor of The American naturalist he was involved in one of the earliest retractions of Pruitt’s papers.
In the past few days, Laskowski says, McMaster has reached out to some of those researchers to say there would be no more hearing due to the deal. The university noted in an email that, as part of the deal, “Dr. Pruitt agrees that they will not take any legal action against you for filing complaints with McMaster University about Dr. Pruitt, or for your participation in any McMaster University trial or investigation.
In follow-up emails with ScienceMcMaster spokesman Wade Hemsworth wrote that the university had not yet completed its work on the Pruitt probe. He also noted that “the misconduct allegations concerned external reporting of research conducted by Pruitt between 2011 and 2015. Pruitt joined McMaster’s faculty in July 2018”. (Between 2011 and 2015, Pruitt worked primarily at the University of Pittsburgh. He subsequently conducted research at UC Santa Barbara before leaving for McMaster.)
Like Laskowski, Nicholas DiRienzo, a data scientist now in the private sector who has retracted or received letters of concern added to several articles he co-wrote with Pruitt, is disappointed with McMaster’s transparency. “Whole field [is] left hanging in the balance wondering which research was good and what wasn’t, “he says, noting that Pruitt, while at McMaster, published articles that were also disputed.
Jeremy Fox, an ecologist at the University of Calgary who helped reanalyze some of Pruitt’s data for the newspapers, wonders why Pruitt quit now and wishes McMaster didn’t take so long to reach this point. “They could have been faster,” he says.
In 2020, letters from Pruitt’s attorneys advised journal editors and Pruitt’s co-authors to await the conclusion of McMaster’s investigations before moving on to review or withdraw documents involving the ecologist. Some magazine editors, including Bolnick, ignored that advice and have since retracted Pruitt’s papers. “A public statement from McMaster … will encourage some publishers who are opposed to take action,” Bolnick predicts.
Pruitt’s official resignation may be enough for some. Peter Thrall, ecologist at National Research Collections Australia, is editor-in-chief of Ecology letters and was awaiting a decision from McMaster before conducting a review of Pruitt’s documents. Now, he says, that review can begin.
Correction, July 13, 10:35 am: This story removed a reference to an article that David Fisher of the University of Aberdeen was co-author with Jonathan Pruitt. Fisher, as originally indicated, is not waiting for the McMaster investigation results to investigate the document. He has already done so and sent a report on the results to the journal where it was published.